No Magic Pill

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Archive for the ‘Training’ Category

I’m a lumberjack, and I’m okay…

Posted by Ben on Tuesday, June 9, 2009

From my training log today:

I woke up a couple hours early to get in an interval workout of rope skipping followed by a core circuit. I walked outside with the dogs to find a bunch of branches had fallen on and around the storage shed. No big deal, but I wanted to clear them off before the rain came back. As I rounded the back of the shed, images of a small iceberg hit: the branches were actually the top of a six-inch diameter tree that had fallen through the only possible clearing in the tree line, across the fence, to rest on the shed. Most of the tree was still on county property, but it’d be days before anyone would be out to clear it, so I put on full-cover clothes (lots of vines and undergrowth), grabbed the only lumberjacking tool I own (a small sport hatchet), and went to town. Three-quarters through the main trunk (about four inches in diameter where I chose to cut it so as not to damage the fence), I realized that it wasn’t giving at all–there was a three-inch branch supporting the whole thing on the ground just below my cut point (damned thing even had a natural crook in it so that it looked like it was reclining on an elbow, the bastard). The pressure of the tree’s weight made the branch harder to cut than the trunk, but it finally split along its length and gave out. The trunk still wouldn’t fold, but it would twist (this was some fresh, green wood–why it fell, I don’t know), so after all the cutting, I finished with several big pushes to swing it off the shed and back to the ground behind the fence. Nature being what it is, and considering I had to be at work earlier than usual today, I couldn’t get in a balanced workload, so my uncoordinated left shoulder and rotation went less-used, but I really don’t care.

Nothing like finding a fun workout when you least expect it. I will, however, be buying a full-sized ax and a chainsaw in the near-future.

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Give the gift of life

Posted by Ben on Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Rescue a tractor or truck tire from the trash heap. You give an old tire new purpose, help the environment, and whip yourself into shape fairly quickly. I FINALLY picked one up today—if you’re in the Charlotte area, Miller Brothers (8101 Statesville Road, in a small, white trailer behind ChillCon way back off the road). It’s about four feet high (see Twitter for a pic until I get one/some uploaded here), and I have no idea how much it weighs, but it’s enough that one tire flip is (I’m guessing) about 90% of my maximum ability right now. Of course, you have to have a place to keep this tire, so I wouldn’t recommend an apartment of any kind—this sucker is dirty and won’t be completely water-free for a couple weeks.

Speaking of water, I finally moved the very last of my junk out of my old place to the current one. This included my slosh pipe. My climbing rope is scheduled to arrive tomorrow (Wednesday; ordered from the eBay supplier in the linked article). There will be a lot of grunting and sweating (in a PG-rated manner) shortly :)

By the way, just over a week until the dome gets chromed. Every little bit helps!

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Dealing with ouchies

Posted by Ben on Saturday, May 2, 2009

In a recent not-post post, I mentioned something about an injury. I haven’t worked out in about two weeks as every waking moment not spent at work since then has been devoted to moving except for a few hours when I was (a) trying not to pass out and (b) getting stitches. Monday before last, the first day of the move, was reserved for getting all the bigger-than-the-pickup-bed stuff moved in a rented truck, and that went off without a hitch. At the end of the day, though, I caught my hand on one of the dog crates and tore a lovely gash in my right palm, about an inch-and-a-half long and deep enough that the subcutaneous fat cells were clearly visible and teasing at escaping the wound, and the blood goes without saying (I’ll spare you the pictures). Fortunately, I didn’t cut into any muscle or other major connective tissues, and I managed to make it two days before breaking down and going to the hospital for stitches (free thanks to some connections, but still, second to my vasovagal response is my white-coat syndrome—I seriously get very mild panic attacks from just being in a hospital, which makes zero sense to me, just like nearly passing out from seeing blood leaving my body, but I digress). I can finally grip at full intensity with no pain again, and the wound site is almost completely healed up, so by the time I get back to training (hopefully in another week or so), all should be ready to go. I just need to figure out which tree branch is getting the climbing rope :)

Acute versus chronic injury

I’ve dealt semi-extensively with both types, and I mainly want to deal with acute injuries in this post since those are the sudden, unexpected ones that throw training into total chaos. Chronic issues arise gradually, sometimes imperceptibly enough that you think it’s an acute issue when it really isn’t, and usually in the form of most joint and ligament aches and pains—these get resolved through balanced training, some p/rehab work, and other corrective protocols. Acute injuries make everything else come to a halt so you can first deal with the immediate problem (first aid, see a doctor, etc) and then figure out how it affects your livelihood (where on your body is it, how severe, how long for recovery, what else will be affected).

Mobility

After all medical care has been rendered, the first consideration is if you can you get around on your own two feet, and if so, how well? It’s pretty cool to see how, say, an upper torso or arm injury can inhibit your natural walking gait since you’ll try to remain upright and rigid to minimize movement and therefore alter your stride. I’ll give you two injury examples from my own experience: first, my recent stress fracture in my left foot made simple walking fairly painful, but I was able to hobble around well enough and deal with compensatory imbalances with SMR and removing any exercise that put pressure on the forefoot, meaning no running or jumping of any kind. It was painful and is still annoying but not debilitating and easily worked around in training. Second, a torn right hamstring put me on my duff for a couple weeks, and then it took a couple months of physical therapy to get back to walking without a hitch in my giddyup, and that says nothing about the lost strength and deformed musculature that is only recently returning to a (good) balanced nature, two years later. Obviously, if you have trouble simply making it to the fridge and back or maybe just breathing deeply (from injury, not corpulence), there just isn’t a whole lot you can do. That’s not to say there’s nothing you can do (try isometric contractions for time), but you’ll obviously be severely limited.

What can you do without increasing risks of contamination, infection, etc?

You just experienced physical trauma. Your body must deal with it. Give it a chance to do so, especially immediately after the event. Also, are you in a simple, breathable wrap that you can change as needed, or are you in a brace or cast of some sort? Think about your personal hygiene here. One thing that would’ve kept me from doing a major workout of any kind with my hand injury before it fully closed up was sweat. Granted, I did sweat a bit while moving (I changed the dressing once or twice a day), but nothing like I do during workouts, and with the additional, intensive movements, there was a greater chance of getting sweat, dirt, and whatever else in the wound, not to mention biological resources being diverted to other parts of the body instead of focusing more on the healing process. Plus, there was simply a decent risk of re-opening the wound with inadvertent pressure or striking on the hand. It’s just not worth it.

Had I been free to work out this whole time instead of moving, there would’ve been no pull-ups, no push-ups, no rowing, no kettlebell swings, nothing that involved the hands (let’s just say loading and unloading trucks was interesting for a few days). I would’ve been limited to lower-body and core work, which is perfectly fine with me, but different injuries require different training modifications. If my injury was more severe and long-lived, I was fully prepared to eventually do a 400-meter walking lunge, more squats, lots of planks and bridges, and whatever else I could do, which was a lot considering the location and nature of my injury, but only when the wound finally closed up. Patience, grasshopper.

What can you do without pain and without prolonging the injury?

This is something every athlete and fitness enthusiast deals with: returning to action too soon. Pain is not an accurate measure of what you should be doing or can do in the first place. Again looking at my two examples: with the stress fracture, I could still do a lot, just no running or jumping, and any attempts to do so have been so have been rudimentary to a point of near-infancy (baby steps anyone?). With the hamstring issue, after the initial couple days of continuous throbbing, the pain subsided somewhat when I was sedentary, but any kind of movement brought it back. Later, simple knee flexion and extension didn’t hurt, but walking did. Eventually, that got better, too, but my strength and balance weren’t fully recovered, so I was at a greater risk of (re)injury until I developed more bilateral balance between my legs. My point is to not rush right back into things the first day you feel better. If you think your fitness progress is slow when you’re healthy, progress coming back from an injury is comparatively molasses running uphill in January, but just suck it up and deal with it unless you want to remain in pain at best or on your keister at worst. Focus on rehab and regeneration as intensely as a normal workout, and you’ll recover that much more quickly. Plus, if it’s a muscle strain, enjoy the warm, massage-like tinglies of your physical therapist’s ultrasound treatment :)

What’d I miss? Lots. Light up the comments.

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Never gymless (epilogue)

Posted by Ben on Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Part one: quitting the gym.
Part two: sympathy and confusion.
Part three: why I left.
Part four: newbies.
Part five: searchers.
Part six: pre-made programs.
Part seven: mental foundations.
Part eight: non-workout suggestions.
Part nine: workout suggestions.

* * * * *

(How does one have an epilogue without a prologue? Hmmm…)

So it seems a few people wanted some hand-holding in setting up their own bodyweight workouts and progressions and such. No problem. I won’t pretend I’m doing anything revolutionary or even original here (see: Milo of Kroton), but much like our dependence on shoes, grocery stores, and government bailouts—oops, a political slip—many/most of us have become too reliant on machines and weights and “stations” when almost all of it uses the exact same thing that bodyweight-only training uses for resistance: gravity. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to leverage your, um, leverage, but enough rambling from me… for now… shush :P

As I mentioned last time, I’ve put together my own training program based on a progression found here, which is great if you want to do a hundred push-ups (do NOT do the sit-up workout for reasons I also mentioned last time), but what about, ya know, everything else? Push-ups are great, and if done correctly, are arguably the single most impactful and beneficial upper-body movement you can do, but there’s so much more your body can do: pull-ups, rows, squats, lunges (which I’ll hopefully be adding soon), planks, bridges, and that’s just the in-place stuff. I’ve kept my workouts to in-place movements since I’m currently dealing with a stress fracture in my left foot, so any kind of running, jumping, or “traveling” movements are out for awhile, which of course hasn’t stopped me :)

This is going to get pretty mathy (yes, I just made that up), but hopefully it’ll make sense when I’m finished. I may—MAY—try to put together a spreadsheet that will let you just plug in your target reps (I’ll get to that in a minute), and it’ll spit out six/twelve/eighteen weeks of progressions from your starting point to your target. Anyway…

Step 1: figure out your (initial) target rep goal for each movement you want to do. Here are mine:

—push-ups = 100
—pull-ups = 50
—inverted rows = 50
—squats = 500
—front plank = 300 seconds*

(* It’s easiest to use seconds for any static holds due to the math you’ll be doing.)

Step 2: test your current max. My starting numbers were:

—push-ups = 15
—pull-ups = 5
—inverted rows = N/A (added these a few weeks after I started and just mirrored my pull-up numbers to start)
—squats = 60 seconds
—front plank = 60 seconds

If you can do these on separate days, great; if not, no big deal. I suggest doing them in the order of: pull-ups, push-ups, squats, and planks. If rows and lunges are in there, add them onto the end (in that order). That’ll be a long-ish test, and your later movements may not be your true maxes since you’ll be fatigued from the earlier ones, but don’t worry. The first few weeks are a feeling-out period anyway.

Step 3a: convert/scale the push-up program numbers to fit each of the other movements. This is where all the math comes in. The push-ups are easy since it’s all laid out on the website, so let’s go through what I did for squats (more than 100 target reps):

—target reps = 500; 500 = 100 (website target max) x 5
—initial test reps = 60; 60 / 5 = 12 (scales down the larger reps to something you can use with the website)
—suggested first-week progression = column 3 (initial test between 11 and 20 reps)

Now that you know which column to use, just multiply all the website reps by five to get your squat reps:

—Workout 1 (Column 3): 6, 6, 4, 4, max (7+)
—Workout 1 (scaled for squats): 30, 30, 20, 20, max (35+)

Step 3b: convert/scale for fewer than 100 target reps (I’ll use my pull-up numbers here):

—target reps = 50; 50 = 100 (website target max) / 2
—initial test reps = 5; 5 / 2 = 2.5 = 2 (rounded down; explained later)
—suggested first-week progression = column 1 (initial test less than 5 reps)

This means my first pull-up workout would be:

—Workout 1 (Column 1 scaled for pull-ups): 2, 3, 2, 2, max (3+)

Capice? Clear as mud? Smooth as sandpaper?

Once you’ve figured out what movements you want to do, the only other real consideration is how you’re going to split it up. I started out doing all four movements in a single workout, but when they started getting to be two hours long, I had to go to a two-workout split (now that I’m considering putting lunges in there, I’ll likely have to move to a three-workout split). I really would suggest keeping the entire workout to an hour or less; this includes warm-up, work, and cool-down. My two-workout split is simply:

—Workout A: pull-ups, push-ups, BW rows
—Workout B: squats, planks*

(* I do what I like to call rotisserie planks, meaning a rotation of holds (front, right, left for me; you can do whichever order you like), each at the specified time with the final max-hold set as a front plank only. Without going through all the math—you can do that yourself—if my first set time is thirty seconds, that means I do thirty seconds in a front plank, then thirty seconds in a side plank, then another thirty seconds on the other side plank, and then I take a rest.)

My three-workout split might be something like:

—Workout A: lunges, planks
—Workout B: pull-ups, push-ups
—Workout C: BW rows, squats

This is an unlikely split for me because I have to set up a set of rings for each upper-body pull, but you get the idea. Whatever you decide to include, and however you decide to split it up, keep two things in mind:

1. Make sure you leave enough recovery time between workouts, especially when similar movements are involved. For me, I know my legs take awhile to recover, so I’d want to keep lunges and squats as far away from each other as possible, which includes…

2. Make sure you do supplemental work as well. This includes SMR, mobility work, stretching, other p/rehab work, and general lifestyle activities (walks, bicycle rides, disc golf, pick-up sports, etc). Focus on glute activation, supine bridging, hip flexor stretching, thoracic spine mobility, shoulder external rotation, dynamic core work (perhaps on a physioball a la Core Performance), and so on. In other words, stay active and “uncurl.”

Some other general tips for this layout:
—Always round down when you do any scaling that ends in a partial rep count (see my pull-ups above). The point of this setup is to use the first four sets to “grease the groove” and get your body ready for the max-rep final set, so you don’t want to be totally sapped by the time you get there; however, you also don’t want to absolutely demolish that minimum number without making sure you move up in the progression next time.
—Don’t be afraid to NOT move up at the end of the week. I tried moving up each week, even after starting on the lowest rep count, and I still got waxed by trying to move on to the third week. Eventually, I decided to stay on whatever my current week was until my final-set max-rep efforts consistently blew past the minimum rep number listed. As long as you can maintain that number or even increase it by one at the end of the week, keep at it. There’s no need to try to jump up to the next level and get frustrated with it if you’re not fully ready.
—You don’t necessarily have to test your max-rep numbers every two weeks, even though the website suggests it. You’re essentially doing a max-rep effort at the end of each workout anyway, and while the idea is to test your max reps on a single set, you probably already have a good idea of what you can and can’t do just from the regular workouts, so you can progress however you like without the tests.
—Speaking of weeks, that doesn’t have to mean a Sunday-through-Saturday or Monday-through-Friday deal. I simply mean “week” as a “round” of three workouts for each movement. As of this writing, it takes me roughly two calendar weeks to get through a workout “week” because of supplemental work, general lifestyle activity days, and plain ol’ days off. The original setup can quickly become too much volume if you don’t work up to it, but hey, give it a shot. I’ve had to back off a couple times because I overreached a bit.

Questions? Comments? Snide remarks? Bring ’em.

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Never gymless (part 9)

Posted by Ben on Sunday, March 29, 2009

Part one: quitting the gym.
Part two: sympathy and confusion.
Part three: why I left.
Part four: newbies.
Part five: searchers.
Part six: pre-made programs.
Part seven: mental foundations.
Part eight: non-workout suggestions.

* * * * *

Finally, the workout-type stuff. Talk about going around your elbow to get to your thumb, but here we are. Now, there are a LOT of things I could get into here, but in sticking with the original intent of this series, I will focus on things you can easily do away from the gym, to the point where a gym may seem like a waste of time and money. I’m not going to lay out an exercise or p/rehab program or anything like that; instead, I’m just going to suggest ways to go about figuring out what works best for you. I’ll be happy to provide more specific, individual suggestions if asked (*hint* comments *hint*), so without further ado…

Uncurl

Not just in the context of the bro-curl:

This is by far the main, overarching point for me when it comes to physical fitness, yet I didn’t realize it until literally a couple weeks ago. It encompasses a lot of stuff, but the basic idea is to uncurl your body, which will spark and parallel an uncurling of your mind as well. I figured this out for myself awhile back when I graduated from the bro-gym to generally more athletics- and strength-based training, and while I didn’t really understand the transformation(s) that took place at the time, I attributed them mainly to more balanced training, which was/is partly true. However, after reading a recent post from Andrew Heffernan highlighting a system called Z-Health (which I need to read more on to have a better informed opinion; it may be complete tripe, for all I know about it), some of the things he points out became apparent as consequences of several different elements I’d pieced together over the years. In a nutshell, the idea is to “uncurl” or open up our bodies and thus our minds. To illustrate actuality, you’ve probably seen this image:

It’s funny because it’s true. In our modern life, look at how close we are to the fetal position with the amount of time we spend sitting down on the couch, at the desk, or in the car. Add to that our perception of stress (very little of it comes from actual threats, but that doesn’t matter) cues our bodies to also assume this position, and voila, our lifestyles reinforce this duck-and-cover position as well as the mindset of constant fear in a vicious cycle, causing or contributing to countless physical, biomechanical issues, and mental issues. Is it any small wonder that we’re the most heavily-medicated society in history?

This is both a physical and mental concept and so envelopes everything that follows, but dealing with the physical elements will make the mental ones much easier to address.

DIY PT (part 2)

Last time, I mentioned five parts to this—self-myofascial release, trigger point therapy, mobility, stability, and flexibility—and with the first two already addressed, it’s time for the other three. Many people mistake flexibility for mobility; they aren’t the same thing. This Tony Gentilcore post explains the difference in great simplicity: flexibility is the length of the muscle; mobility is how a joint moves (that article also makes a good case for how interconnected the whole body is).

So, how do we approach these elements? You probably already know the flexibility part—that’s the static stretching you’ve been doing since grade school, though probably incorrectly and/or ineffectually, most notably by doing it as a warm-up. That’s a no-no for many reasons, but let me just say this: why would you want to lengthen and hold a cold muscle that, in a few minutes, will be called upon to contract forcefully and/or repeatedly over the course of an hour or so? Toward the end of my distance running life, I warmed up with mobility and dynamic movement, and I was the only one; everyone else I saw who wasn’t just standing around was either seated or leaning against something and stretching, and it was these same people who complained that it took a mile or two to warm up. Well, duh, that’s because they weren’t warming up by stretching. Keep that for the end of your workouts, do it intelligently, and don’t force it.

Mobility is achieved through dynamic stretching, dynamic movement, stretch-shortening, and other terms that all simply mean warming up with movement rather than holds, increasing temperature in and blood flow to muscles and preparing them for more rigorous work. This is how you should be warming up (self-myofascial release is also a part of developing mobility). A quick Google or YouTube search for any of the above terms will get you what you need for the basics—it’s really hard to screw up this kind of thing, so most Internet sources will be okay as opposed to lifting demos and “feats of strength,” many of which are hilariously painful to watch. There are also some hidden gems out there for more specific work.

Stability is exactly what it sounds like: control amid chaos. Strength-endurance is the basis behind this, meaning something has to be strong enough to remain taut, but not rigid, in times of tension. A perfect example of this concept is the rectus abdominus, your abs or six-pack muscles. If you remember any of your anatomy/physiology, the way the muscles connect to the bones in that part of your body suggests that these muscles are designed to powerfully and dynamically contract, explaining why crunches and sit-ups are so prevalent. That’s only half-correct. In fact, the abs are designed (based on their striations) to powerfully contract ISOMETRICALLY (without movement) in order to stabilize the upper body when the spine is loaded, keeping it properly aligned and stable. Out with crunches and in with planks, jackknifes, V-ups, and the like. Want to feel the true purpose of your abdominals? Get (and actually use) an ab wheel. A strong, stable core is essential to practically all other bodily movements, and all three of these traits combine with strength, power, and endurance to form a well-rounded athletic individual. Get your core—this is more than just your abs—in order, and the rest will fall into place.

What, think your bodyweight is too challenging?

Been there, still doing that in a lot of ways, but there are ways to make it work for you through progression of movement. As of this writing, I’ve adapted this push-up program to also include pull-ups, bodyweight rows, squats, and planks (with all the supplemental corrective and p/rehab movements brought in from another program). I don’t follow it to the letter because I’m not able to progress as quickly as the program suggests, but I maintain the setup and repeat parts as needed until my results suggest that it’s time to move up to the next stage. There are numerous good sources for finding information on bodyweight movement, so I’ll leave it to you to find those (I’ll list a few in a minute), but the challenge for someone just starting out—in general or in defiance of the gym—is figuring out how to make progress without all the shiny toys and gadgets.

One thing I want to dispel here is the dogma of form. In the gym, if you’re lifting a maximal weight for one rep, you’re probably going to fudge a few things; otherwise, submaximal lifting should be ship-shape. Outside the gym, if you’re unloaded and just using bodyweight, some conventions of *ahem* “wisdom” also don’t apply. For example, if you squat with no load other than your bodyweight, you want to try to maintain a flat or slightly-arched lower back, but it’s not 100% necessary 100% of the time—if it were an unbreakable law of nature, then your lower back would only extend and never flex. Your body can do a lot more things than most trainers (and almost all media) will lead you to believe. Don’t squat lower than having your upper legs parallel to the floor? Then why do we possess that extra range of motion? I guess that means we should never climbing steep stairs, hills, or stepping over a hurdle, right? There’d also be no sitting on low seats or the floor, right? Please.

Now, about the absence of stuff. It’s time to use a little physics and some not-so-common sense. Let’s look at the push-up. Can you do one? If so, how’s your form? (Sorry, had to, though arm angle and elbow placement ARE important here so as to avoid putting the shoulder at risk for injury.) If not, what if your hands are up on a chair? No? How about the back of a chair? The edge of a counter? Maybe you have to stand up straight, arms out in front of you with your palms (I prefer fists) on the wall, and just start to fall forward, then push back. We all have to start somewhere, and if that’s your starting point, so be it. Do those until they don’t seem challenging anymore, at which point you put your hands on something lower (countertop). Rinse. Repeat ad infinitum (once you get to the floor, start elevating your feet). No, don’t do push-ups on your knees. Two reasons: one, it’s too easy to cheat, and two, “girl” variations are self-fulfilling prophecies.

What about squats? Similar concept, though you’ll be more restricting your range of motion, but basically, just sit down. No, seriously. See, you squat all the time, though you may not realize it or do so under control. Think of squatting as sitting down without knowing exactly where the surface of the seat is (ladies, you know about hovering; same thing): start by pushing the hips back, keep your back taut, and feel for the seat with your tuckus. You may start by only breaking at the hips or lowering a couple inches for reps. That’s fine. When a certain distance becomes easy, increase the range of motion until you get to where you can touch the backs of your upper and lower legs without lifting your heels off the ground. When squats get easy, go for maximum reps without stopping or the most reps in a certain amount of time. Getting bored? Try one-legged squats, then one-legged squat jumps. The bottom line is that there’s always a way to make things easier or harder but definitely more interesting.

For cheap/free at-home ideas, these are my offhand suggestions to check out:
Ross Enamait (his books, forums, and blog are gold for bodyweight exercise and DIY equipment)
Adam Steer
Mark Sisson (his whole site is like a Wikipedia of health and fitness stuff, all interesting and readable and easily a time-suck—I mean that in the nicest way possible—if you’re not careful)
The Bodyweight Files
CrossFit (I don’t agree with some of their philosophy, but their bodyweight exercises and demo archive are great food for thought)

Of course, there are many others. If you decide to get into making a few things here and there, you might need to offer supper and/or beer to someone to make some of the implements, but that’s a small price to pay compared to a gym membership (dues, gas to get there, etc).

Get your butt in gear

By the way, if you think your bodyweight is too challenging for the basic movements like those mentioned above, you have no business running. First of all, if you’ve already attempted it, especially if you’re just starting out, chances are that you’re not running. You’re shuffling. Don’t shuffle. You want to get faster at some point, right? Well, you have to train fast to be fast, and shuffling ain’t going to get it. Interval training on flat ground is a start. Throw in some hill and jump training when you get to that point. Progress up to a half-hour workout, and you can destroy a 5K without ever having run more than a half-mile in a single rep.

The reason I bring up running is that before you even try it, you need to get into some serious glute activation going first. I speak from firsthand experience of having weak/inactive glutes (and a weak core) while trying to develop sprint speed. This overloaded my hamstrings and popped one halfway through an interval workout one day. I don’t recommend the experience. Instead, lunge, glute bridge (feet on floor or up on a physioball), properly pick up really heavy stuff off the ground, anything and everything you can do to counter the effects of sitting all the time, which both elongates the muscle and shuts down the nerve pathways. Develop strength in areas that open up your body and get it away from that fetal (fatal?) position. One of my favorite masochistic workouts consists of only one movement, the walking lunge, for one lap around a track. I do recommend this experience, but only after you’ve been training awhile and can afford to be immobile for the next day or two. Take care of the foundation work first so you can enjoy the other stuff later relatively injury-free.

What, think your bodyweight isn’t challenging enough?

Really? Okay, go here. Talk to me when you’ve completed every movement and modification listed.

* * * * *

Is that it? No, I have another dozen posts’ worth of stuff I could say, like how you could easily add some kettlebells or clubbells or stretch bands or Olympic rings or an ergometer to your home repertoire, but I think I’ll take a sabbatical from this series, if not a full leave (admit it: we need it… well, *I* need it). There’s plenty of time for more specific stuff in other posts; after all, this series aimed to help the newbies and the searchers get at the absolute minimum for making physical gains at home with zero equipment (except for maybe a pull-up bar) and to develop an awareness of your body. For all two of you who’re still here (checks are in the mail), I want to leave you with three video clips: one on the difference between winning and success (among hundreds of great videos on that site), one to see just how hard you’re willing to work, and one to help you realize what can be done when you allow the voice of “can” to overpower the voices of “can’t.”

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Quickie for the runners

Posted by Ben on Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I’ll use this reference more and more in-depth later on, but a big thanks to Jonathan Fass for digging up this gem of running theory and practice. If you do ANY kind of running, from sprint intervals to long-distance races, you owe it to yourself to read through the articles on that site and double-check that you’re getting the most out of your running without wasting effort or causing injury. I’m also COMPLETELY unbiased by the fact that it poo-poos running shoes ;)

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Never gymless (part 8)

Posted by Ben on Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Part one: quitting the gym.
Part two: sympathy and confusion.
Part three: why I left.
Part four: newbies.
Part five: searchers.
Part six: pre-made programs.
Part seven: mental foundations.

* * * * *

The ideas we discussed last time aren’t exactly the easiest in the world to embrace for a lot of people, especially if it’s something you have to consciously do, and that’s okay. Maybe you can do some of those things. Maybe you struggle to do just one. As long as you have SOME inkling of making a change for the better, you can also do one or more of what follows here.

Addition by subtraction

I briefly mentioned last time our propensity for overstimulation and pill-form compensation to get through our daily lives. I’m not about to pretend I don’t enjoy a cup of coffee in the morning, mostly for the taste of the good stuff I do splurge on, but also partly for the wake-up call (plus it’s actually hydration-positive and doesn’t appear to be an insulin bomb). I usually have two or three cups of a half-caf blend I put together; if I have more, the subsequent cups are usually decaf-only. In fact, the only times I knowingly have fully-leaded coffee are the mornings I have to get up at 4:30am for work, which happens every other weekend right now, and on the rare occasion that I buy a cup of coffee when I’m out and about. I tend to avoid fully-caffeinated coffee because I tend to drink a fair amount of it (six cups a day at the absolute most). I love the taste of good, strong coffee in the morning and occasionally in the afternoon, but I don’t want the extreme highs and lows of stimulants coursing through my veins. Yet some people depend on this substance, physically at first but eventually mentally. The same goes for a lot of the supposed energy drinks and, of course, alcohol. All of these provide a fleeting sense of euphoria to varying degrees while allowing the body to do things that normally wouldn’t be expected, whether it’s improved focus, heightened motor awareness, or simple numbness.

I don’t suppose I need to say what all this falls under, but I will: addiction. We’ve all heard stories from both camps: the alcoholic who tries to sober up or the caffeine-aholic who tries to get some restful sleep by giving up the stuff—cravings, headaches, tremors, stomach problems, lethargy, and so on. The alcoholic by night might be a caffeine-aholic by day, using one to offset the other. The caffeine-aholic may opt for some kind of sleeping pill, either over-the-counter or prescription, or some hooey-blooey pseudo-scientific farce such as feng shui, playing a “nature” soundtrack in the background, or whatever other add-on they can find.

What I’m getting at is that whether it’s a substance abuse issue like mentioned above or just the seemingly simple ritual of exercise, our tendency is to employ the add-on, meaning we do all we can to cure, remedy, mask, or ignore problems by just piling on more stuff (without thinking through it first), including some of the things I’m going to mention later in this post, without even considering the idea of taking something about. so the first little tweak I’m going to suggest here is addition by subtraction—basically, you’ll benefit more by doing less. Now wait a minute, you might be thinking, isn’t this whole series about improving physical fitness? Yes. Doesn’t that mean getting off the couch and doing something? Yes. Anything? Compared to nothing, yes. So wouldn’t I be doing MORE instead of LESS? Generally speaking, yes. So aren’t you contradicting yourself? Nope, and here’s why: while the goal is a lifestyle change that will bring about physical (and mental) health, it ultimately involves an EXCHANGE of living, not adding on to what’s already happening.

Addicted to TV? (If you do ANY kind of scheduling around a TV show, or if you spend more than a half-hour per day watching it, you are.) Take that time and do, ya know, something else, even if that means *gasp* turning off the cable or satellite service. Seriously, give it six months. You’d be amazed at all the other stuff that life has to offer, not to mention being able to enjoy that stuff and forming lifelong memories, and doing so with the money you saved.

Have a zoo for a household, filled with kids and pets and who knows what else? It may hurt a lot, but consider adopting out the pet(s)—I’ve taken in dogs who’s owners didn’t dislike them, but they simply weren’t able to give their pets enough time and attention. Pets do offer significant health benefits, but only if they’re fully-appreciated family members and not just something to have because it’s expected. Maybe the kids don’t have to have ten extra-curricular activities at a time, or even five. Just because the kids are busy doesn’t mean they’re learning or otherwise benefitting from these activities; it may simply be that they’re being babysat and/or just spinning their wheels killing time. Adults are bad enough about their own overstimulation, so why burden the kids with the same condition when all a lot of them want to do is play (meaning GTFO of the house, not sloth around in front of the Xbox). Use that time (and money savings) to maybe, oh I dunno, hang out? Sit down together at the supper table? Be an engaged parent?

I also wrote awhile back about the bare minimum needed for personal upkeep during chaotic times, so in a dietary sense, get rid of all the junk food and easily-prepared stuff (read: opening a bag and/or nuking for a minute). It should be pretty apparent that subtracting empty calories adds a considerable amount of livelihood (more on this later). When something adds more stress than benefit, it’s time to do a little prioritizing and closet cleaning. A happy consequence of all this subtraction, alluded to in the TV example, is that you start to “see” and “hear” things that you didn’t before. I live next to the busiest highway in the Charlotte area. Guess what I hear all day and all night? In my recent house hunting (which has actually taken an unexpected turn for the better), one of my criteria was what I could hear while just standing outside. As long as it was something other than tractor-trailers, sirens, and horns, the place immediately got Brownie points. Sure, I’ll actually have to start commuting to work, but it’ll be worth far more than having no commute while having to put up with traffic noise. The same goes for your body and mind. Take away the commotion, and you start to listen to what you’re telling yourself as far as an ache here or a tweak there, which leads me into…

Shed the shoddy shoes

Man, if this dead horse gets beaten anymore—wait, what am I saying? I’m going to wail on it until there’s nothing left, and it’s a BIG horse, by the way, so no disappearance anytime soon, not when I’m going up against the likes of Nike and Puma and Adidas and so on (I’ll actually give those companies some credit for having fairly decent options for footwear: Nike’s Free line and the motorsports shoes from both Puma and Adidas). I don’t know how many times I’ve said it or how many articles I’ve linked about it, but this is one of the easiest, most cost-effective lifestyle changes you can undertake. I shared some recent writing on the subject not too long ago, and support against traditional footwear continues to grow. Sure, shoe stores will tell you that you need thick-soled shoes and to heelstrike so you don’t get stress fractures (a completely erroneous statement, Run For Your Life in south Charlotte). Sure, podiatrists and chiropractors and reflexologists will happily continue to “fix” and “adjust” everything under the sun and claim that the chronic issues simply can’t be helped—if they could, these people would be out of business (if you want an idea of my true opinion of these folks, go find “Alternative Medicine”—Season 1, Episode 2—of Penn & Teller: Bullsh**! on Showtime).

I won’t lie: the first couple weeks are going to hurt, but do everything you can to spend as much time as possible barefooted (Vibram Five Fingers are a great next-best-thing). Use “motorsports” shoes as your casual footwear for their thin, pliable soles (I also use these in my workouts if I’m not wearing wrestling shoes). If work dictates a certain type of shoe, just do the best you can, but every chance you get, lose the shoes.

Meditate

Okay, here’s the hooey-blooey part. I don’t just mean to meditate in the stereotypical fashion (you know, the bald-headed guys hovering in mid-air with their ankles on their knees), though that’s fine if that’s your thing—in fact, if you can do the hovering thing, call me; I might have a great marketing opportunity for you. No, I’m more concerned with something I mentioned in the first section above about finding focus, whether that’s through immobile introspection (sit, think, quiet), dynamic regeneration (qigong et al), or simply finding your Element. Again, I’m sure some of you are thinking that this is another add-on when, again, it’s just an exchange. It’s also highly personal. I, for one, simply cannot do the whole seated meditation thing, and I even tried it—twice—in arguably the single most conducive environment for such an endeavor. The only thing that comes close is something I discovered for myself—and read about later—called progressive relaxation, where you actively focus on parts of the body and will them into relaxation. I usually do this if I’m having trouble falling asleep for whatever reason, and it seems to work fairly well for me.

Instead, I do much better with dynamic regeneration, namely the little bit of qigong I learned at last year’s JP Fitness Summit. It hails from the Little Nine Heaven Wu Tao and was taught to me by Steve Cotter; there are, however, many other iterations of qigong. The reason I favor qigong over its yin-yang opposite tai chi is that qigong is inherently regenerative and restorative whereas tai chi is inherently destructive as a combative martial art. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try tai chi if moving meditation is something that interests you, but my thinking is that I’ve done and do enough destructive things to my body and mind that I want my recovery to be as pure and simple as possible. In a similar vein, yoga is not evil as some in the fitness community might insinuate, but it’s just not enough stimulation to induce positive, long-lasting physical changes in the human body, namely bone density; it is, however, a good starting point and a great supplement to other training. Additionally, there are a lot of gimmicks and hucksters out there who want to differentiate themselves as a marketing ploy. Hey, I’m all for turning a profit, but if you want the most benefit, start out simply and don’t fall for the hoo-hah of “hot” yoga or “tantric” yoga or whatever. If you think a system or DVD looks too easy, then it’s probably for you. If the movements aren’t difficult, then you can concentrate less on learning the sequences and more on your kinesthetic awareness, developing a sort of hypersensitivity to your body’s movements and location in space. The idea here is to give your mind a break as well as your body by focusing on ease and simplicity rather than the normal din of modern life.

As for your Element, that’s hyperpersonal, in that only you can decide what this is for you. I mentioned my own Elemental places in a previous post linked above, but they are mine and mine alone. It’s up to you to find yours, but the mental relief and release of finding it seems to have similar benefits to more traditional means of meditation.

DIY PT

As in do-it-yourself physical therapy. I’ve already mentioned my dislike of chiropractic—it treats symptoms without treating underlying conditions—but aside from major issues that only real physicians and specialists can address, you can pretty much do it yourself. There are five key areas I want to address—self-myofascial release, trigger point therapy, mobility, stability, and flexibility—but I want to focus on the first two here and leave the other three for more directed discussion on physical training in another post.

Don’t worry about the term “self-myofascial release” other than in your Google searches. Think of it as taking a rolling pin, large or tiny, to your muscles and connective tissues, the purpose of which is to make the tissues more pliable, less stressed, and subsequently capable of more strength and quicker repair from microtrauma. Common implements used to do this are foam rollers, variations on The Stick, and various balls (tennis, lacrosse, etc). It’s best to start with foam if you haven’t done this before and gradually use firmer tools (I use PVC pipe wrapped in a thin layer of foam for my roller), most of which can be found at any big-box department store and numerous online retailers (I prefer Perform Better). There are plenty of free resources on how to properly use these tools (look for Eric Cressey on YouTube), and SMR is increasingly being incorporated in all sorts of training programs.

Related to (perhaps a subset of?) SMR is trigger point therapy. In a clinical setting, this is a specialized form of massage, but with the right tools and know-how, you can easily do almost everything yourself. TPT zooms in to the level of individual muscle strands where tiny knots form for a variety of reasons, from chronic poor biomechanics to acute trauma. The trick with TPT is that where you experience pain (often dull and long-lasting though not always) isn’t always the area that needs to be addressed, which is a blunt example of how the body is a single, cohesive unit (think of athletic training) rather than something to be sliced up into individual, separate parts to be trained separately (think of stereotypical bodybuilding). I’ll get into this distinction more in a later post. TPT is more intricate than SMR and requires a little bit of reading to learn (and perhaps another tool or two to add to the toolkit), but the long-term benefits are substantial (less pain, more mobility, fewer doctor visits). The source I recommend for TPT is linked in the first paragraph of the Mediation section above.

Junk the junk food

I know this series is geared more toward directly doing things with and for your body, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that anything you ingest is potential fuel for your body, and as quantity (likely) decreases, quality should increase. I hinted at this above by suggesting a cupboard cleansing, but this applies to everything you consume, most notably soda. You can easily Google the effects of soda on the body, and lately, there’s been some unfavorable research results regarding diet sodas as well (sure, you don’t get the calories from the drink itself, but your body still craves calories due to the sweeteners’ effects on the the body’s hunger mechanism, meaning you just consume those calories elsewhere, and the insulin reaction appears to be similar to regular sodas). Learn to love water, tea, coffee (in moderation), and even some of the water flavor packets (in extreme moderation/dissolution). A little fruit juice is okay for flavor, but regular fruit juices are hidden calorie bombs disguised by a veil of health. As for food, I’m mainly thinking of typical fast food. Even though Supersize Me is a tad sensationalistic, it’s still a good watch; The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a much better read; I recommend both.

Dietary changes are arguably the most difficult to bring about, especially with how difficult getting actual fact-based information really is. Fundamentally, food is the basis for survival, and the human body is evolved to deal with unexpected bouts of famine, hence we tend to hold fat very easily (look up some of the studies and writings of John K. Williams for some great reading on human dietary evolution). Food also provides a sense of comfort, which is largely a hormonal response that triggers hunger as well and lends itself to easy addiction for some people. Food further offers a reason for gathering, and congregation is a primal activity that humans seek out. There are plenty of reasons for why diet is as difficult to change as smoking is to quit, but if you choose to do a single major lifestyle change without anything else discussed before, after, or elsewhere, this is the one worth doing. In a lot of ways, diet is more important than any kind of physical training since you have to adapt your diet to fit your activity level, and doing so intelligently can make and keep you ready to start physical activity at any time.

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That’s pretty much the non-workout stuff I can recommend offhand. As always, feel free to add on to this in the comments. Next time, I’ll get into some actual workout-type stuff you can be doing, and again, you don’t need a gym for any of it. In fact, you probably only need a few square feet of space for most of it.

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Never gymless (part 7)

Posted by Ben on Friday, March 20, 2009

Part one: quitting the gym.
Part two: sympathy and confusion.
Part three: why I left.
Part four: newbies.
Part five: searchers.
Part six: pre-made programs.

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It has to be a “you” thing.

I admit that this has a lot to do with my own personal philosophies on life in general, what with my love of Ayn Rand and libertarian theory (not blind devotion, just preference), but when it comes to fitness, there’s a huge push in the industry toward group exercise and instruction. I probably shouldn’t explain why this is happening since I’m eventually hoping to facilitate my own group training, but I’m going to tell you anyway: it’s all about economy, both THE economy and economy in general. Most typical gym-goers are more likely to pay a little less money per unit of time and sacrifice individual attention and privacy. This (a) saves money for the trainee, (b) makes more money per session for the trainer, and (c) incorporates a group mentality so the trainees can laugh through awkward moments and/or encourage each other through the workouts and/or simply stave off any apprehensions of solitude. This is a great setup for the trainer because, more often than not, people are also more likely to return for subsequent sessions if they know other people will be there, too. If that’s something that helps you off the couch, that’s great, and it’s a good option for anyone getting (back) into exercise.

The problem is that far too often, people rely on this “other” presence as their sole means of exercising, even if it’s just the trainer. What happens when the “other” doesn’t show up? What happens to the “other” when you don’t show up? It’s not like you’re close friends or anything, and you’re certainly not being judged or held accountable for the most part, so any sting of shame is blunted by relative anonymity, which is all well and good, but now what? Even if this “other” is a good friend, if they start to lose the fire, it just makes it that much easier for you to douse the flames as well. Your motivation is gone, and you eventually find other things to occupy your time, retreat into a comfort zone, and before you know it, the next year has rolled around, and you may or may not notice that you’ve had an automatic debit drawn from your bank account each month for some mysterious reason. Maybe those nice, new shoes look like they’ve been through a war zone yet still have 90% of their tread. Do you perhaps have a really oddly-shaped clothes rack that you don’t quite remember showing up?

Let’s be honest here. Money is not a motivator, and gyms know it. You should know by now that gyms use a business model that depends on signing up as many people as possible to long-term, auto-renewing contracts while having as few of those people as possible actually show up. Other people also are not chronic motivators—sure, they’ll get you through a workout here and there, but it’s simply too easy to get derailed by depending on others. The only real, long-lasting, infallible source of motivation is from within, regardless of whatever you want to attribute to its being. That way, you get all the blame and/or all the credit. You get to think for yourself and do what you know is best for you since your goals are your own and no one else’s. There has to be an inner drive that doesn’t hinge on any external condition, whether that’s a partner, a sunny day, a childhood fear, or a busy work schedule. Now, repeat after me: easier said than done. We’ll get there, but for now, this and this article are a couple decent starting points.

It’s about the journey, not the destination (cliche, I know, shuddup).

I’m going to begin by pulling from a post I wrote in another life about part of a long motorcycle trip I’d taken:

I did mull over why I enjoyed the riding on this trip so much more than I’d enjoyed riding over the past several months, other than the fact that I was on vacation. What I kept coming back to was this: on this trip, time was not an issue––only daylight was––and with the exception of Wednesday’s down-and-back between the house and Myrtle Beach, every time I jumped on the Harley, I was going to end up somewhere other than where I started. Even before I took off to Myrtle Beach, I didn’t have nearly the sense of anticipation and excitement that preceded my rides on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday. Yes, I realize that US17 is flat, mostly straight, and in some areas near Myrtle Beach, highly developed, but aside from the development, that pretty much describes the US17 I rode on Tuesday from Hampton Roads to Jacksonville (business route development notwithstanding). So there it is. As long as my day ended somewhere other than where my day started, my rides seemed to be more enjoyable.

I don’t want to imply that our destinations should always differ so dramatically from one day to the next. If that were the case, then we’d have classic exercise ADHD, skipping from one program to the next every couple weeks because it was the newest and latest and greatest and OMG GUNZ N ABZ!!!!1!1!1 Of course, you don’t really get anywhere on this hamster wheel. The trip I mentioned above was my first multi-day ride, and though I was a little apprehensive at times, I always knew my ultimate destination would be “home,” wherever that happened to be, just as I know my ultimate destination in life is a fit, healthy, and hopefully aesthetically pleasing body, though I’m most concerned with proper function—form will follow. Like so many other things, when it comes to physical fitness, people want the path laid out in front of them, straight and clear as I-70 running across Missouri, and when something causes a detour (or even a backtrack), it’s the end of the world. Two immediate responses to that: first, I-70 is arguably the single most boring stretch of road I’ve traveled, more so than I-40 through eastern Arkansas and, believe it or not, more so than I-85 between Durham and Petersburg; second, as one of my college English professors liked to say, the most boring path between two points is a straight line. Boredom can be okay as long as it’s productive, but boredom is also the end of the world for some people—if it’s not kick-ass sensory overstimulation each and every time, it’s not worth doing, right? *pssst* Neither your body nor your mind can handle that on a regular, chronic basis—heck, it needs rest and recovery from just a normal life, let alone a jacked-up one. I’ll address this more later, but you’re ultimately seeking a lifestyle change, so why would you want that lifestyle to be boring? Granted, some of my own detours have been because of various injuries, imbalance manifestations, and not-so-simple changes in training philosophy, but each step has been productive, even if it may’ve seemed a little regressive. That scares a lot of people, but it shouldn’t. The fun is in the doing, not the getting there, because if you truly want to reach your potential, you’ll never feel like you have.

Sometimes, a complete overhaul isn’t necessary (at first).

What two things characterize the lifestyles of (perpetual) newbies when it comes to diet and training? First, “diet” connotates a temporary change in food intake, often viewed as a make-up for all the crappy eating that came before, and is most likely unrealistically restrictive. “Diet,” in fact, is simply what you consume, good or bad, so “diet” is a lifestyle, not something you do for a few weeks at a time. I’m not trying to address diet in this series, but it’s pretty easy to see how what we’ve discussed before and will discuss later relates as much to food as it does to exercise. Case in point: several years ago, I decided to experiment with a cyclical ketogenic diet just to see how my body reacted (very favorably). By itself, that was a big change, especially since I didn’t spend a week gradually decreasing my daily carb intake; instead, I went cold-turkey one Monday, which was rough but doable. However, on top of the keto, I was on a kick to quit caffeine as well (I’ve since recanted), so I ditched all caffeine on top of carbs. Let’s just say I was completely worthless for about three days, and I was fortunate to have an understanding boss and a fairly undemanding job at the time. All I remember doing was sitting at my desk staring blankly at my computer until I acclimated to the change. I recommend trying either or both, just not in that manner.

Second, training programs are gung-ho, all-or-nothing, balls-to-the-wall bouts of pain and torture—hey, some people get off on that, not that there’s anything wrong with it, but unless you have some other issues to deal with, you’re probably not doing that every single day. The same goes for exercise. Your body simply will not allow you to go from hours of couch time to hours of training time overnight. Know anyone who’s said they want to run a marathon, or even just a half-marathon? Did they actually do it? I mean, really run (so to speak) the whole thing, or did they even make it to the start line? Those that made it, was it an overnight thing, or did they spend months in preparation? Those that didn’t, did they even start training, and if so, how long before they faded? I can ask and say these things because I’ve “run” a half-marathon. My body is not made for that kind of activity (I’d bet dimes to dollars that yours isn’t, either, but I won’t get onto that biomechanics soapbox here—Google “Q angle”), but I still did it after about two YEARS of training. Granted, it wasn’t all targeted toward that race, but my runs did get progressively longer to the point where I felt I could complete a half-marathon (again, I did, but not without consequences). Could I have continued beyond that race distance? Possibly, but unlikely. Sometimes, you just have to know when to call it quits, and there’s nothing wrong with that, either.

In each of the above examples, I engaged in major lifestyle overhauls, and though I pushed through each one, I did so in different ways. With the dietary changes, life was miserable for awhile. It was simply too much, and only because I was a unique work environment was I able to stay on track. Most people don’t have that luxury. With the half-marathon, I spent a long time progressively improving my abilities. Which do you think is (a) more comfortable and therefore (b) more likely to remain a permanent change rather than something to simply get through? So why do so many people choose to follow the other path? It’s pretty simple: a defined, short-lived timeline promising extreme results that are assumed to remain after the final deadline when all discipline is cast aside to resume the former lifestyle. It just occurred to me that Billy Mays doesn’t pimp fitness products, though I guess Tony Little is the next best thing.

Hopefully, I’ve given you the “what” and some of the “why,” so now it’s time for a bit of the “how.” I say “a bit” because there are countless ways to attain and maintain the mindset necessary for long-term physical fitness. As you’ve probably guessed by now—and I may’ve even mentioned it a time or two—I lean toward the notion that a strong mind is essential for a strong body and vice versa, the latter of which gets into a whole different topic of the effects of diet on both body and mind. Again, I’m not trying to get all hooey-blooey, but if you don’t actively engage your mind in your training, then at best, you’ll just be going through the motions, led around by a carrot(cake) dangled in front of you; at worst—and this happens to even the most advanced athletes—you risk injury by not paying attention, either in the micro or the macro, and further hinder any gains you might possibly realize. Just please don’t get bogged down with thinking you have to do everything everywhere every day. Think of the children: they and you had to learn to crawl before you could walk before you could run. The funny thing is that it was almost all done in the context of play, and play is fun.

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Next time, I’ll finally, actually, really start getting into some specifics of how to start and/or focus your training, and here’s a bit of a preview: most of it will have absolutely nothing to do with a gym.

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Never gymless (part 6)

Posted by Ben on Thursday, March 12, 2009

Part one: quitting the gym.
Part two: sympathy and confusion.
Part three: why I left.
Part four: newbies.
Part five: searchers.

* * * * *

I don’t want the last couple posts to suggest that it takes a special kind of person to simply exercise. Most of us certainly don’t have the natural genetics or talent to be professional athletes, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get the most out of your time and effort. However, it does take a certain mindset to be successful in your training, and I use that word liberally—“training” could mean anything from buying and cooking particular foods in pursuit of a healthy home lifestyle to repeatedly getting your butt kicked, often at your own hands, and asking for more. You don’t necessarily need a pre-made, cookie-cutter program resting in your hands to achieve physical success, but the vast majority of people get started this way or use it to focus otherwise haphazard, directionless time wasted in the gym and elsewhere. Therefore, I want to address these programs before getting into what you can be doing on your own.

I’ve read my share of fitness and lifestyle books—I’ll suggest my favorites later on—but there just aren’t that many good ones. A common feature among these is the explanation of philosophy before getting to the workouts, and this explanation more often than not (in the better books, at least) leads off with “before you skip this section” or “don’t just turn to the workouts” or something similar, and for good reason. I’ll bet that 99% of people who buy a workout book off the shelf without any forethought about what they want to do end up flipping ahead to just get started without seeing if that particular program is something they want or are willing to do in the first place. They don’t care about the “why,” just the “what” and/or “how,” whichever you want to ascribe to the nuts and bolts. However (I use that word a lot, no?), if you’ve bought a program this way (most likely a searcher), I’d like to challenge your way of thinking about this.

When presented with a book containing a workout and nutrition program, you just want to get started. After all, if it’s been published and marketed, it HAS to be worth something, right? I mean, just look at the cover models! There may also be some before-and-after picture comparisons, and those are always trustworthy, right? Dispensing with the sarcasm (for now), the workouts are fluff, the recipes are definitely fluff, and if the book says you can skip the awesomeness and jump right into the madness, well, you know. The real value, if any, of the program in your hands is in all that boring introductory stuff, whether it’s a couple chapters at the start or shorter sections preceding various sections of the book. That’s where the authors explain their training and/or nutrition and/or lifestyle philosophies, hopefully supported with some valid scientific references or at least some pretty darned good anecdotal evidence from years of training others (or both). If it’s written in a pretty straightforward manner, maybe with some wry humor (see: Lou Schuler), and reads with fairly little nonsense, then the program might be worth something. If the pre-workout stuff is only about four pages of big print and big margins (and lots of exclamation points, most likely) and reads like a Tony Gentilcore blog post, you might want to skip it (his blog is great, though, really a specimen of fine modern American literature). Take advantage of those big, comfy chairs in the bookstores so you can sit and read through a couple books before buying.

Now, I’m going to suggest a few books and trust that you’re NOT just going to raid Barnes & Noble for them, skip the homework, and flip to the test questions—you’d actually be eating the meal backward, passing over the entree to fill up on salad and breadsticks. Don’t be that guy—actually, no, I think I’m just going to wait on those suggestions *duck* :D

* * * * *

Next time, we’ll look at the mindset needed to begin and continue on your fitness journey.

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Never gymless (part 5)

Posted by Ben on Thursday, March 5, 2009

Recap: In part one, I announced the cancellation of my gym membership after continuously having one for the better part of eight years. In part two, I mentioned some of the responses I received from friends and acquaintances, and from those, I began to wonder aloud about the replies that more or less expressed confusion and even sympathy and at the people behind those particular comments. In part three, I summarized my reasons for leaving the gym and started looking at why people should feel “never gymless” based on what they likely already (un)learned earlier in life, namely the concept of failure. In part four, I touched on some common mental hurdles facing fitness newbies.

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I have to admit that I struggled a bit to come up with a way to talk about some of issues that searchers face, mainly because it’s usually a much more personal, internal situation—it’s easy to observe newbies in the wild, but searchers are likely also regulars (though not always) and appear to have their routines in place, but are they attacking their workouts, or are they just going through the motions? Let me qualify this by saying that all the enthusiasm in the world, despite its unmatched importance in getting everything you can out of your training, doesn’t automatically mean your workouts are smart or even good; if you also make the newbie mistake of not planning properly, it just means your workouts are hard. Unbridled, directionless enthusiasm runs a real risk of resulting in all sorts of physical and possibly mental problems. I don’t want to get all hooey-blooey on you (yet), but true fitness lies in the confluence of body, mind, and spirit.

A semi-recent post from Andrew Heffernan includes a great quote from Bruce Lee regarding body movement:

When I first started training, a punch was just a punch, and a kick was just a kick. Then I got to a point in my training when a punch wasn’t just a punch and a kick wasn’t just a kick. Now, I’m at the point again where a punch is just a punch, and a kick is just a kick.

In fact, if you haven’t already, go read that entire post from Andrew. Seriously, if you have time to read all this drivel I’m churning out here, then you have time to go read a better, more informative, more focused post elsewhere. Don’t worry, I’ll still be here babbling when you get back.

So, what exactly are searchers searching for? The answers are as varied as the people looking for them, but whether newbie or not (newbies and searchers do well as a Venn diagram, by the way), it seems to me and my completely subjective and anecdotal opinion that it has a lot to do with acceptance and/or avoidance:

Acceptance

I can’t begin to get into all the ways this applies, but by way of a couple examples: you might have a group of friends who are fitness enthusiasts and may ask you to join them in whatever exercise they do, so even though you wouldn’t have worked out on your own account, you like hanging out with these people enough that you go ahead and jump in. You might just want a group of friends like this in the first place, so you decide to get involved in an exercise class or other group in hopes of making these connections. You might have a reunion of some sort coming up and want to (re)gain acceptance into that group. You might just want to “belong” to some esoteric group of people who “workout” whenever the subject comes up in conversation because, like, ya know, um, like, EVERYone else is, like, um, doing iiiiiiiiit, and junk. And let’s face it, people tend to be more immediately accepting of those who are thinner and appear to be fit.

Avoidance

I want to call this a case of “if you don’t something now, something worse will happen,” and how many times do you hear this in a day? If you don’t buy this gym membership, if you don’t buy this piece of exercise equipment, if you don’t buy this program, if you don’t buy this diet, if you don’t take this pill, if you don’t do this or that, something worse will happen, even if that something is nothing. We always have to be doing something, right? Then tomorrow, it has to be something different, right? Because if we’re not doing something, then we’re doing nothing, right? And if you’re doing nothing, then you’re a lazy, good-for-nothing sot, right? Every day, the next best thing comes out, and if you don’t act right now, not only do you forfeit HYOOGE monetary savings (nevermind that you’re still spending money), but you also risk not getting the full benefit of whatever it does while others zoom past you on the way to physical perfection. Right? RIGHT??? Or, in a vein similar to the acceptance stuff, maybe you want to avoid missing out on a group activity and thus distancing yourself from friends, and by extension, you want to avoid solitude. Maybe working out allows you to avoid something else in your life that you’d rather not face. Maybe you want to avoid any social or professional stigma associated with being overweight and out of shape. Maybe you just want to avoid being winded and sweating at the slightest exertions.

I’m not saying any of this stuff is the wrong reason to (attempt to) start training—there is no “wrong” reason to start training, just like there’s not really a “right” reason, either, but whatever the reason, you started, and that’s always the hardest part. I also generally agree that doing something is better than doing nothing when it comes to physical activity. However, if you’re going to invest the time (and likely money) into this stuff, why waste it? If you’re the gung-ho type, why risk injuries of all sorts by not taking a little time to think about what you want to accomplish and research some safe and proven ways to do that?

Walk with me here a second. Think back to your childhood, or think about your own kids or someone else’s kids you know. Imagine you gave a child an option of either (a) playing a game of freeze tag or (b) running eight laps around a track. Which do you think they would pick, and why? Which one would you pick, and why? If you picked freeze tag (the same as the child), then you still find physical activity fun. If you picked the track, then chances are you’re looking for an easier path. Now look at the time requirements: freeze tag is over when it’s over (or when you’re called in for supper), but left to their own devices, I can’t imagine kids playing tag for more than maybe a half-hour. Similarly, the typical weekend warrior runner might also spend a half-hour once a week thinking they’re running (I’ll bet dimes to dollars that they’re not). Who do you think enjoys their half-hour more? Hang on to that thought. We’re starting to get somewhere.

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Now with the main challenges identified, we can now start to look at a common path of moving past these hiccups and getting into the proper framework for starting and keeping up your training and also how to maintain constructive momentum while avoiding both overdoing and underdoing.

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