Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Dojos and garages

This is great stuff from Tommy Kono. After it was brought to my attention on the Dan John Q&A forum I read it a few times, digested it and realized that I follow very little of this. Read it first and I'll talk about me later.

If I Had My Way by Tommy Kono

If I had my way, the weightlifting area would be treated like a "dojo" as the martial arts students would use their area and equipment for training.

The entire area would be treated with respect from the bar to the barbell plates, from the chalk box to the platform.

The barbell bars would never have the soles of a lifter's shoe get on it to move or spin it, no more than you would place your shoes on the table top. The bumper plates would never be tossed or stepped on.

The barbell will always be loaded with double bumper plates on each side whenever possible to preserve the bar and the platform. The purpose is to distribute the load over two bumper plates instead of one with an assortment of small iron plates.

The barbell lifted would never be "thrown" down or dropped from overhead except for safety reasons. The hands will guide the bar down in a controlled manner as it is in a contest.

Anger from a failed lift will be controlled so no four-lettered words would be used.

Instead the energy for the anger will be directed for a positive result.

A good Olympic bar will never be used on a squat rack for squatting purpose. There is no need to use the good bar on the squat rack where it could ruin the knurling or cause the bar to be under undue stress, damaging the integrity of the quality of the bar that makes it straight and springy.

When a lifter finishes using the area for training, it would be left neat and clean with the barbell bars and plates properly stored.

Imagine how it would be if you did not have the gym to work out in and had to go to one of the spas, health clubs or fitness gym to practice Olympic lifting.

Imagine if you did not have a "good" Olympic bar and bumper plates for training.

Imagine if all the equipment was your very own and you had to replace it if you or someone damaged it by abuse - the money coming out of your own pocket.

Treat the Olympic barbell bars, bumper plates, platforms and any items used for training or competition with respect.

Development of a strong character begins with respect even for innate objects.

Character Building begins with Respect and Responsibility. 

Once again, I cannot state enough that I agree and admire everything said here. However, my path is different:

My gym is a corner of my garage. It's dusty, cramped and I fight a losing battle with spider webs weekly. I do buy all my own equipment, the nearest gym that offers the equipment I need costs a significant portion of my family's grocery budget. So I scrimp, save and every so often turn an old protein tub full of pocket change into something I need.

Needs are important. I have a bar. I have only one a pair of bumper plates. I have a squat rack. I need these. A plate rack is a luxury. So my plates are stacked, leaned against the wall or piled by the rack.

I have a good Oly bar. Not great, but good. It cost me $300. A power bar to use for benching and squatting is a luxury. So my Oly bar goes on the rack for squats and bench. I only have one pair of bumpers. I can't clean 225 yet (so very close, but other things are more important right now), so I don't need another pair of 45's. 10, 25, and 35 pound bumpers are luxuries. So iron plates go on next to the bumpers. My bar is lifetime guaranteed and the vendor assures me it doesn't matter what plates I use. So I use what I have.

My platform is a concrete floor with horse stall mats on it. I break my platform, I break my house. So I follow Kono's rule and control the bar so it lands flat on the bumpers.

I swear if I miss a lift, but I swear often. I swear when I have to buy gas, when I have to go to meetings at work and when the store runs out of my favorite coffee. So it's not an extreme display of anger. I do my best to remain calm while training. I quit using heavy metal as a training crutch a couple of years ago. Music is still appreciated, but I listen to different artists at a much lower volume now.

I can imagine finding a way to workout without my gym, because I've had to. I've used old cheap power bars with iron plates for Oly lifts, using a few layers of carpet squares over the grass in my backyard as a platform. I've risked injury to avoid making any noise at all lowering heavy cleans in a hidden area of a base gym.

My plates may lie on the floor, I may have to step on or over them to adjust the volume on my radio, but I still respect and appreciate them. Each one came to me through effort, hours of searching classifieds or saving pocket change.

I never skip a workout without good cause. My warm ups are ten hour days. My post work out is whatever the wife and kids are having for dinner. It doesn't matter, I get my reps in.

I don't have a dojo, and neither do you, but we can both still build some character and discipline. 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Long Road

Just a list of marginally related thoughts.

The value of discomfort exceeds the results gained. Hard work is not merely a virtue on it's own but it imbues us with qualities we have forgotten to revere.

We admire those who do uncomfortable things, yet we consistently choose comfort as our top priority. We chose to live as we are. We chose not to want adventure, but to have adventured. We want the memories and the admiration. We don't want the fame, we want the trappings that go with it. We want Total Recall. In this way, we rob ourselves of the real value of those uncomfortable things.

You do things the hard way, avoiding the left hand path of quick aesthetic results, and you come out the side as something more. Tougher and stronger certainly, but also filled with a greater reserve of will and spirit. It is not the results that grant you this, it's what you went through to get them.

Now days you're a bad ass if you get off the couch and do anything that involves a barbell. Deadlifting 135 pounds for reps is some kind of feat. 

We all have the same attitude you see so often in online games; anyone I can beat is a noob, anyone who beats me has no life and spends too much time in the gym. This is why bad asses can get away with deadlifting 135 for reps.

Sometimes working smarter is working harder. Being able to deadlift 540 once does much more for someone than being able to pull 135 for 20. If your goal was to set the all the plates on a thigh high platform, it would also be more efficient.

Most people understand what they need to do, you just have to convince them that it really is that simple. Lift progressively heavier things, do progressively harder aerobic work, eat well, don't push it too far and be consistent. Give people guidance on how to do this safely and you can get 95% of us to our goals.

Buying a DVD that tells you you'll lose weight by waving your arms in your living room is simply preparing an excuse for failure ahead of time. You should have bought a book that teaches you the value of arm waving instead.

Paleolithic man didn't have it right, he just didn't have the same opportunities to get it wrong that we do. Give a cave man a loaf of Wonder Bread and I have no doubt he'd eat it.

Agriculture isn't inherently bad, it's misused. The same could be said for grain.

We have forgotten that discomfort and boredom are often a fact of life. This is the best thing we can learn from contemplating Paleo man. If your choices for a bed are  a pile of leaves on wet ground or a pile of leaves on dry ground, you're going to be able to deal with being uncomfortable much better than people who use Sleep Number mattresses.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Kettlebell Roadwork a la Maffetone

The concept is simple. You set two kettlebells somewhere between 40 and 100 yards apart. Do a few swings, then jog to the other kettlebell and do a few reps of something else. Alternately you could carry one bell back and fourth in a suitcase carry. I got the idea from from a fellow named Aussieluke over at Dave Draper's Iron Online.

Maffetone comes into play by trying to keep your heart rate in a target zone using his 180 formula. Another simple concept. Keep your heart rate in the target zone and avoid overtraining and make better gains.

What they don't tell you is how soon you'll want to smash your incessantly beeping heart rate monitor. For a guy who shies away from aerobic exercise until it's a necessity (it is a necessity in my line of work) it's damn hard keeping my heart rate in that target zone.

Much like easy strength this doesn't feel like enough work, which also adds to the temptation to push harder, until your heart rate monitor starts nagging again.

I'm not going cardio bunny just yet. I'm still hitting the weight room hard and throwing heavy things. However, I do need to maintain the ability to run a decent 1.5 mile and after not using my kettlebells for about eight weeks during my recent 5 x 5 work, I felt slow and heavy despite my strength gains. I got a lot of snap back in my throws and some pop back in my squat after just a few workouts with my bells.

Since I don't normally enjoy running (I can tolerate it, and relax enough to feel good doing it but that doesn't mean I care for it) and I was getting other good benefits out of KB work, it seemed natural to try kettlebells for aerobic work again. I've been looking for "runless running", a way to keep my run time at a reasonable level without actually running, for a while with little success.

I started by getting a baseline for a decent 1.5 mile. 14:35. Passing, but just barely. This would give me a score that would mean I'd have to re-take the AFPT eval every six months instead of once a year. That means more running and that just won't do.

The first KB aerobic workouts were a simple 15 minutes of constant swings, snatches, squats, push ups and planks. Doable, but brutal and with heart rates in the 175-190 range. Those high heart rates lead to me wanting to slow things down. You can't serve two masters, maximal strength and power comes at the cost of never reaching maximal aerobic capacity. "Specialization works, but at a cost"

If I was going to get what I wanted, without limiting my gains in the weight room and on the field, I needed efficiency. Flogging myself that hard would just wear me down. So after a week, I dropped the reps to twos, threes and fives to keep my form good, and added the jogging or loaded carry. I also picked locations with uneven ground and some easy obstacles, to keep my feet and ankles strong and limber for running without covering lots of distance. Thus was born Kettlebell roadwork a la Maffetone.

Will it work?

I don't know. I am certain that something is better than nothing. To keep my AFPT score in the once a year range I need something like an 11:30 1.5 mile (last time I took the test I was close to this, but it left me wiped out for an entire day afterwards). I plan to make another timed run in the first of July and hopefully that will give me some indication of success or not.

In the mean time, changing habits and listening for beeping continues.

Friday, June 1, 2012

My lazy post on conditioning

I haven't been here much lately as life has been very busy for a few weeks. I had been trying to write something on conditioning and aerobics because the subject has been coming up a lot at work lately. However, Anthony Mychal has beaten me to it. One of the other users on the Dan John Q&A forum shared this a PDF from Mr. Mychal and it's absolutely excellent.

While he approaches the subject as a debunking of the HIIT craze, he's not attacking HIIT directly. Instead he goes after the myths that surround it and reveals HIIT to be exactly what it is, the training of one of the body's three energy pathways and not the path to ultimate athletic performance. In his wrap-up he goes on to show how in the world of human performance, everything varies by context, reminding us again that there is no one single path or one goal that does everything.

While some of his points chafed against long treasured beliefs of mine they are well supported and you can't dismiss them out of hand. Absolutely wonderful stuff, bookmarked, saved to my hard drive and printed off.

Without further ado: The Myth of HIIT

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Battle Lines

One of the hazards of the internet is that it’s very, very easy to find yourself embroiled in an argument. Tone of voice, often so vital for effective communications, is lacking. It’s very easy to believe the worst about someone when you can’t see or hear them. Wars are fought on the internet, words are bullets, cleverly edited pictures and videos serve as weapons of mass destruction, the wounds are emotional but the hurt is real.

I remember when the internet first got “big” back in the 90’s. It was heralded as a way to finally cast off racism, classism and a host of other -isms.  It was supposed to be a pure meeting of minds. All of our problems could be solved by meeting in a neutral space and talking them out. Collaborating over the internet was going to fix everything. Now we watch porn, caption funny pictures of cats and argue about everything from which reality TV star has a better ass to “important” things like who God wants to marry and which political party should win and force their views on the other 49% of the country.  If there was an opportunity here, it didn’t slip through our fingers, we never really tried to catch it.

I’ve been involved in many such battles before. Many times willingly. Recently I’ve made an effort to stop participating in them. One, it’s not good for the blood pressure. It adds stress to your life that you can easily avoid by closing the browser window and walking away to lie in your hammock or play with your dog. Second, it’s better for humanity as a whole. The less time we spend pointlessly bickering as a race, the better chance we have of actually accomplishing something worthwhile with the internet, however slim that chance may be at this point.

Removing myself from internet arguments is one step I’m taking to reduce the amount of stress in my life to aid my health and training. Less stress seems to equal better recovery in my experience and the health effects are well documented. Another step is curtailing my expressions of anger. I’m very good at expressing anger. I can go on a rant and be funny and no one objects as they would if I were screaming profanity and making threats. So in the past I expressed a lot of anger. One of my targets was often Crossfit. 

This is an apology of sorts. In attacking and expressing anger over things I didn’t agree with and didn’t like I lumped a lot things into the category of abjectly evil that didn’t belong there. Yes, I disagree with a lot of the methods, claims and philosophies of Crossfit, especially those espoused by the founders. However, there are people out there who are doing good work with the program and have kept the best parts of it, including the community and its willingness to help others and brought those to the forefront while discarding the dangerous and ineffective. I know a few personally. In my desire to be “right” I have indirectly yet still unfairly labeled those people with the same brand as the ones that have taken the program to its dangerous extreme. For the record, every program has a dangerous extreme.

I’m walking a fine line here for two reasons, one, I don’t want to write something slanderous and second, I don’t want to start this war all over again. I could write a scathing and detailed critique of what I see wrong and what I don’t like but Google will give you hundreds of them, many written by people more intelligent and experienced in such matters than me. What I will give instead are my reasons for not doing Crossfit. I will leave the rest for other internet warriors to fight over somewhere else. I’m retired.

Understand this first, logically your personal philosophy and/or preferences should have no place in training. The only thing that should matter is the question “Will this help me meet my goals?” If you don’t have defined goals to meet, well, we have a whole different issue there. But a 100% rational decision should not include doing a program because you like being pushed to your limit in one way or another, it should be based on doing things that helped others succeed in achieving a similar goal. Obviously, none of us are 100% rational, but for the moment let’s pretend we are. Looking at my goals we have two primaries and two secondary. The primary goals are; Throw heavy things further and Get stronger to assist with throwing. My secondary goals are; maintain a bodyfat level and run time that allows me to pass the AFPT test.

Crossfit is not the optimal path to strength. Nor is it the optimal path to the type of power generation needed to throw heavy things further. I don’t need a long list of studies, essays and anecdotal evidence to make this statement. Just using common sense we can look at elite throwers and weightlifters the world over (again we’re talking the top 10 to 1% here) and see that very few (or none) of them got there doing Crossfit. You will find statements from those in the Crossfit community both celebrating this and yet making thinly veiled claims that you could make it to that level with Crossfit. I will not speculate on which the official view of the community is. However, at the elite level, if something works well many athletes will be doing it and the majority of throwers seem to be training for strength and throwing heavy things on a regular basis.

Crossfit could help some in my secondary goals and I have often used HIIT (seemingly a cornerstone of their program) in the past for conditioning and fat loss. I’ve found it very effective for fat loss but not as effective for helping to maintain my run time. Following Dan John’s postulate that Thowers throw is the corollary that Runners must run. If my goal is running then again it would seem to be common sense that running would be a better investment of my time and energy than 200 burpees.

For fat loss, or rather maintaining a reasonable bodyfat level, I believe the largest portion of this is diet. Diet is my preferred method of cutting fat as I already exercise frequently and it’s required for effective fat loss anyway. So rather than doing 200 burpees in an effort to lose fat, I’ll simply restrict calories or carbs or whatever for a couple months at a time as needed.

So, all of my goals can be met by what I’m already doing. I’m lifting weights in what is widely held as the optimal path to strength, throwing heavy things frequently and I’m following the most logical choices to improve my run time and maintain my bodyfat level without compromising my primary goals.

This, people, this is the real focus of my essay. I’m not trying to discourage people from doing Crossfit if they love it and even if I were I doubt it would change anyone’s minds. Enjoyment and a strong community can have that kind of effect. What I am proposing is that people apply the same kind of logic I have here to their own goals when they choose a program to follow or what parts of it to follow. If your goal is simply to lose weight and pass the AFPT, then Crossfit may be a valid and effective choice so long as you are prudent in its application.

Do you need to use high rep Olympic lifts for fat loss when you could grab a couple of dumbbells and do some simple complexes or even just do hill sprints? Is a complicated semi random routine involving varying methodologies across broad modal domains needed to get rid of a beer gut? Will the community frustrate me or help keep me motivated? These are the kinds of things that need to be taken into account. Most often people simply read the claims in the brochure and assume that because the guy selling them the membership looks pretty fit, they are accurate and factual.

There are people out there who recognize the validity of this process and yet are still part of the Crossfit community. I recently spotted a Crossfit challenge that stated that “no Olympic lifting was required”. As much as I love the Oly lifts I was happy to see this because it’s a sure sign of someone moving away from doctrine to both reach more people and adjust a program to match the needs and goals of their customers. 

That is why I’ve stopped the Crossfit hate. The community and the program are maturing. True, there will always be hardliners who take things too far. There will still be videos of dangerous and disturbing things on the internet. There were videos like that long before Crossfit and if it were wiped off the earth tomorrow, more videos would be made without it. People will still get hurt. People get hurt using other programs besides Crossfit. But overall things seem to be evolving; the best parts are being distilled out of the crap. For the sake of those who can benefit from Crossfit and its strong community and also for the sake of my peace of mind, I’m letting it be.

Saturday, May 5, 2012


Taking full advantage of opportunities is a handy skill that few of us practice well. I am no exception to this. Sometimes we simply don't recognize an opportunity for what it is. Other times it's because life has handed us only part of what we want, since it's not exactly what we're looking for, we let it pass us by.

I take extensive advantage of one such imperfect opportunity at work. We are allowed (with supervisor approval) an hour of work to exercise every day. It only makes sense for them to offer this as being physically fit is a requirement of the job. For me, the problem is equipment based. I use a lot of power cleans and snatches in my workouts. I also drop the bar when I do them. There's no platform or bumper plates in the gym at work. I use a lot of kettlebells. We have none of those either.

It would be very easy for me to write off that hour and in the past I have done so. However, trying to wedge 90 minutes of workout into a busy weeknight doesn't lend its self to a stress free evening. This was the impetus for my splitting the 40 day workout and my current 5 x 5 program into two workouts. One in the morning at work in which I do everything I have the equipment for there. The other at home where I can drop a bar loaded with 200 pounds. My kettlebells spend more time in the trunk of my car than in my home gym.

This isn't a perfect solution but it is a workable one. Perfect is often an excuse. It's used all the time. My form isn't 100% perfect on every rep so I can't go up in weight, I'll just do the same old 3 by 10 with 135. I haven't found the perfect gym yet so I can't start doing Starting Strength, I'll just do bench and curls. On and on. Perfect allows you to let an opportunity slip without feeling bad about it.

"a wise Italian
says that the best is the enemy of the good" 
- Voltaire

Here also lies an opportunity to improve my throwing. Again, not perfect but workable. I'll have to sacrifice a large portion of my lunch hour and possibly some breaks. However, it's the best way I have to get more throws in and no one seems to mind if I turn the grassy area behind our shop into a moonscape. 

It'll grow back...eventually
It's not perfect. There's no practical way to haul a caber to work and back. There's not enough room to safely work on hammer throws. However, I struggle the most with weight for distance and stone putting and there's plenty of space for that. Working on weight over the bar would be plausible. Sheaf toss wouldn't be out of the question. Looking at last year's score chart, this is exactly what I need. This is an opportunity to take.

Perfect is the enemy of good. The perfect opportunity to improve my throws would come just after a winning lottery ticket sets me up for life and a world class thrower decides to retire, move to my town and give away free lessons. Instead I have a couple of short sessions a day and a small video camera to record my progress.

Taking advantage of such imperfect opportunities is the only way most of us are going to get anywhere. Only the ridiculously fortunate or the insanely talented get a perfect opportunity. Just like you can't count on being the one person that the snake oil works for, you can't bet on finding yourself in the perfect situation to meet your goals. Take any opportunity you are given to improve your fitness and health. Cultivate them if you have to. The world will not drop this into your lap exactly as you want it. Find a way.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Stress, recovery and holism.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I feel stress is one of the biggest obstacles I face. The effects of stress are well known and well recorded. To put it simply, living with chronic stress is like living 30 seconds from a fight the whole time. Your body remains at a heightened level of alertness at all times. Eventually, something gives.

Honestly, the more I read about it, the more I believe that rest without relaxation does not constitute adequate recovery. The idea sounds backwards, how can you rest without relaxing? I think it's quite possible as I feel I've been doing it for years. T.V. and the internet provide one avenue to this type of rest, sitting and worrying about work is another. If you can't relax yourself and let go of that tension it will eventually harm you. I'm starting to form the opinion that 9 hours of crappy, stressed out sleep is worse than six hours of blissful, fully relaxed slumber.

It could possibly affect your training in other ways beyond simple recovery. Are you struggling to get the finer points of one lift or another? Think of your stress level just before or during a workout as you read this article. In the past I've struggled mightily with my weight for distance technique. Now I'm wondering if the fact that I practice at work (the main source of my stress) during my lunch break has a small part to play in my struggles. This also forms the basis of my objection to people using technical lifts for conditioning without extensive experience with the lift. When your heart rate is up, whether from stress or your workout, your fine motor control and technique is going to suffer unless you have "Etched" the movement.

This is where holism comes into play again. You could be doing everything else right and suffer because you're not handling stress well. If your head ain't straight, how do you expect everything else to line up? Working on a technical lift or fine motor skill under high stress levels without a coping mechanism is akin to driving drunk. The thing that's supposed to be in control has diminished control over itself.

Looking back at the last week I've seen small improvements in both my bench and overhead press, my WFD throws and how well I'm managing everything else in my life. I've been using small, easy to implement, relaxation techniques (mindfulness and the non-mystical ground and center ) and it seems to be helping. It's not a miracle or a cure all, it's just a small but measurable increase in both the weight I'm lifting and the distance I'm throwing. But it's encouraging.

Relaxation is hard for many people from western societies. The books I'm reading keep telling me this and personally I fit with the stereotype. Giving it the college try and pushing harder and harder is ingrained in us as the path to success. I've carried this with me for years. We respect those guys who can stay cool under fire and can do it for long periods of time. We try to emulate the ones who can just "push through it" often with disastrous results. The "Everyday Joe" needs to understand that there are literal differences in the brain chemistry of those who handle stress better than the rest of us.

When looking for motivation most people would be better off with Yoda's pseudo eastern ramblings than the ravings about never giving up and tying harder that dominate the western school of thought.

I find this quote more enlightening:

"Awareness cures; trying fails."
-Eloise Ristad

If your focus is blurred by stress, how can you be fully aware of why you are failing? If you are focused only on the result of your efforts and not the process how well do you really understand what you are trying to do? Trying harder while doing the same thing you've always done will only get you a more physically taxing version of the same failure. This makes sense in a very subtle kind of way.