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.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Hammocks can occasionally be difficult.

Especially if you only have one tree.

I'm not sure why I settled on getting one. I had just scored a 46 out 50 on the how stressed are you quiz in the Dummies Stress Management book and it's getting on towards summer. It sounded like a nice way to relax.

Obviously, reality doesn't always match expectation.

I purchased a reasonably priced nylon model and a hook I could screw into our tree. We have only one tree in the back of our house. It's a variety of maple commonly planted in late 70's subdivisions around here. If trees could talk, this one would whine incessantly about the neglect and abuse I've heaped on it. Have you ever seen the joke "lost dog" posters looking for a one eyed, one eared, three legged dog named Lucky? We have the tree equivalent. It's also slowly destroying our fence. I should cut it down, but it's our only tree.

I tied the other end of the hammock to the A-frame of our swing set. We have one of those big wooden ones that home improvement stores do their best to convince you your kids will give up TV for. This worked well until my daughter decided to join me in the hammock. At which point it became very evident that the swing set was not designed to handle static loads at that angle and that the load was about to get very dynamic in a bad way.

So I left my hammock after about three total minutes of relaxation. I plunged into the retail strip in our town, the area where all the big box stores congregate. Dragging my son with me (after a short detour to get his stitches removed) we hit every sports and outdoor store and home improvement warehouse in search of an affordable hammock stand.

This sounded like the ideal solution. I could move the hammock anywhere in the yard to take maximum advantage of the shade from our one tree. I balked at the idea of dropping $50-$60 on a cheaper metal stand. I reckoned that I could do better with a little bit of lumber. I reasoned that even if it didn't work properly I could disassemble the hammock stand and use the lumber for another project.

So $40 later I drove home with a load of 2 x 6's and some hardware. 45 minutes after that my contraption was built. The difference between a contraption and a hammock stand is the amount of intelligent design work that goes into the planning phase. A contraption has little to none. A hammock stand has at least a half hour put into it before you pick up a skill saw.

After finishing my attempt at carpentry I had another blissful two minutes of relaxation before my rear started to graze the 2 x 6's at the bottom of the stand. Thankfully the wood didn't let go all at once. After a minor redesign resulted in pretty much the same thing I resigned myself to having to sink a post in the yard. I had collected an old street sign post somewhere. I'm not sure how or why I collect so much "useful stuff" as I frequently wind up hauling loads of it to the dump (ask my wife about my collection of tires). At least it came in handy during this ordeal.

You should note that the Contraption/Hammock stand is still in one piece. During my foray into retail madness Hammock fever hit my six year old daughter like a ton of bricks. I'll admit to being a huge marshmallow of a father sometimes. Shortly after I finish writing I'll be heading to the store to pick up a pink hammock for my daughter. She and her brother fully load tested the hammock stand contraption with their 112 pounds of combined weight during my second run to the local home improvement labyrinth and it held up well enough for me to agree to her request that I keep it around.

At this point I had more than three hours invested in "relaxation". I was dirty, tired and hungry. The hammock and the hook for the tree, which originally cost me about $27 had now rung up an additional $50 in lumber, concrete and various hooks, eye bolts and hardware. But at the least, it was done. The real win is that through most of it, I didn't get frustrated as I so often do. Just being aware that I do often over react has helped me avoid it. My wife and I did start to bicker about another issue, but as I took a deep breath she looked at me and joked, "I know, I'm the reason you had to buy a hammock." This sent us both into hysterical laughter. 

On the left is the contraption formerly called a hammock stand, to the right my "$20" amazon style hammock.

Flash forward a couple more hours and the concrete was dry enough to support my weight and a short workout had been completed. My daughter and I spent a mostly relaxing half hour in the hammock. Although as you probably know, a six year old's idea of "quiet" is very different from a 35 year old's. Because of children's natural curiosity about the new, the quiet, blissful meditation on the canopy of our old maple tree I had imagined may not fully materialize for a few weeks. However, spending a few minutes contemplating the world view of a six year old who lives more completely in the moment than most other kids her age does some good for the blood pressure, at least until it's time to get her ready for bed.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Taking my own advice...

It's easy to give advice. Criticism is even easier. Anton Ego's final monologue in Ratatouille sums this up so perfectly that I can't help going a little off topic to post it. It's a little bit of truth and beauty buried in an unlikely location, just like the chef it refers to. Peter O’Toole nailed it. I'd love to shake the hand of the person(s) who wrote it, maybe buy them a beer.

It would be the easiest thing for me to write a blog about why fans of one program or another have it wrong, why their methods suck and so on and so forth. It would also change absolutely nothing. People who agree with me would continue to agree with me and people who disagreed would likely continue to disagree. In the end, nothing changes.

With advice, I at least have a chance of influencing someone. That's why I like advice. Ask me for advice and I'll give you an answer I think is best. Despite my reputation (that I have occasionally cultivated) for being a grump and a little on the anti-social side I genuinely want to see other people succeed. Usually because it means less slack for me to pick up in the long run.

Taking advice is hard. It's difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Once you're on the inside looking out the clarity an impartial observer has is muddied. Unless it already fits with your world view it seems suspicious, oversimplified or downright insane. This is also why negative criticism amounts to nothing much beyond heart burn. Really, when you think about it, advice and criticism are two sides of the same coin. An advice columnist and a food critic are both simply people with a well developed ability to articulate their opinions about how something should be done.

Taking one's own advice is hardest of all. I think it requires even more of the "setting one's ego aside" than making an exercise program, deciding to use the smaller plates you should use even though there are attractive women in the gym or admitting you have no clue how to actually get in shape. Here folks, is one more reason for Rule 10. Your fifteen year old internet addicted little brother could possibly have more clarity on where you are and what you need to do than you do. Mostly because his ego isn't involved in the evaluation process. 

So, back on topic, which piece of my own advice do I need the most? Why, Rule 2 of course. More on that after the break.*

Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?

Stress is causing me problems. It's the biggest road block between me and what I want right now. I mentioned in my review of the 40 Day Workout that I have lost whatever coping skills I used to have, if I ever had them. I'm to the point that I need to do something to return to a normal state of functioning before I wind up very ill. It's all part of that necessary holistic approach I mentioned in the last post on consistency. Holism as relates to training is something I'd like to elaborate on in the future, however, my lifestyle doesn't feel particularly whole at this point in time so I'm waiting to comment until I have some perspective.

I have spent five years healing and training my body, it is now time to minister to my own mind. That's what I need the most.

I've tried breath based meditation before. Having ADD, maintaining focus is very difficult for me. The supposed solution eventually becomes a source of stress. Also, it's not practical for me to lay in a darkened room for a few minutes every time I feel stressed at work, or even expect my co-workers to not talk to me if I do it in the work area.

Guided meditation doesn't do much for me either, both because of what I've listed above and also because I can't get over ageiness... of it all. I can't focus on imagining a peaceful stream for more than 15 seconds at a time and doing so gives me the willies because of my long standing phobia of water. I have a low tolerance for anything I see as bullshit and some of this kind of stuff ranks high on the list. It's my problem, not guided meditation's. Any of the similar schools of thought or relaxation techniques do little for me. I love a good soak in a warm tub, but you'll never catch me enjoying one with crystal pendants and lavender scented candles. Aromatherapy mostly just aggravates my allergies.

So I'm starting with THIS. Yup. That one. 

I wanted Relax and Win by Bud Winter, but it's been out of print for a while and used copies are up to $250 on Amazon. Bud was a famous track and field coach and reportedly developed much of the material in this book working with fighter pilots in WWII. This is the kind of thing I'll listen to. A Dummies book seemed like it would be the next best thing and provide some down to earth advice without me having to pack bayberry scented massage oil on my next business trip someplace hot and dry. I've ordered a few other books from Amazon as well. The hard part will be giving this a chance. Open mindedness doesn't come easily to me here.
I don't have any real conclusion to this as a post or in real life. It is, figuratively and literally, turning a new page for me.
*I couldn't decide whether to open with the quote or the Ratatouille bit, so I flipped a coin and move the quote down here. I love both.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

What I Missed in the List...

The one glaring omission in my Top Ten list is the role consistency plays in meeting your goals. I hint at it several times, but I didn’t shove it in people’s faces the way I did some of the other points. I’m not sure why it didn't come to mind. Possibly I felt it should be self-evident.  However, it seems to make everyone else's list so it warrants serious discussion.

By the way ETJ, if you read this, it’s for you bud.

Not actually ETJ, but this is how I think of him

Everyone I know or see that makes real progress and improvement does so by being consistent. Consistency in both the decision to deliberately exercise (I know Weight Watchers will give you extra points for doing house work, but unless you’ve never cleaned before you shouldn’t use them) and consistently using their method or program of choice. I’ll quote myself from Rule 8 of the list, “If you stop doing it, it’ll never work.”

There’s no reason for me to rail away about how people don’t follow through with this or that and they start and stop and still expect results. I think most people understand the concept that you need to continue doing something for a long period of time to get results. Mostly they just don’t know how long that time frame is. I blame the bullshit artists for this. If you don’t know what it takes to get visible abs, which product will you buy? A book that tells you it can be done with 6 to 24 MONTHS of dieting and hard work or a pill that promises lean and sexy in six WEEKS? I think the best thing to do would be to give the few hints and insights I have that helped me stay consistent.

Folks, do follow Rule 8 and pick a diet and method of exercising that you enjoy. If possible, your goals should speak to your soul. You should be able to cultivate them into a passion. At the least, it should be something you don’t hate. Training to compete in a sport helps, especially if there is a strong community built around it. If you are out of shape and overweight, those initial months of fat loss and general conditioning should be nothing more than a prelude to the bad-assery to come.

Don’t listen to anyone else who has a fragile enough ego to ridicule your passion either. I’ve been on both the sending and receiving end of that ridicule and now I just try to avoid it. I know it’s clich├ęd but life really is too short to get butt-hurt because some Crossfitter thinks Powerlifters are fat and slow and Powerlifters think Crossfitters are all too thin and weak. Just let the crap go, get off the internet and go enjoy your chosen hobby.

If your family and work don’t support what you are trying to do, it’s time to have a talk with them. Usually, I am against oversharing goals. I feel that come New Year’s Day a lot of people tell all their friends about their resolution, get a lot of pats on the back and never take one step towards getting anything done because they’ve already had a very easy to get reward. 

However, there are times when you need to tell someone to give you some time or space to do something that’s important to you. If your spouse doesn’t understand that every Friday is workout night or baseball practice or yoga or whatever and is scheduling you to babysit for their night out with the boys or girls, there are going to be some issues with consistency. If your co-workers insist on dragging you out to eat while you’re trying to shed pounds, things might not work out so well. You need friends, co-workers and family to support you or, at the least, let you do your own thing.

You have to work it as seamlessly into everything else you deal with in life as you can. It will never be completely seamless, but you need to work it all into your life as smoothly as you can. I hate to use the word holistic. I really do. I know what it means but the connotation is almost too much for me to take.

This guy could be your next personal trainer...

But it really is the best word for job. Your approach needs to be holistic. Not just training the whole body, but your whole life. If it’s a pain in the ass you will eventually quit. You can’t compartmentalize it into a daily gym session that has you commuting for an extra hour and a diet plan that has you struggling to find "options" on the local take out menu every day.

I train at home because I know I don’t like to leave the house in the evening. I work 10 hour shifts, when I’m done for the day I’m all the way done. I built a home gym in my garage because I understand that I will not drive, even a half mile, to the nearest big box gym. Or the three miles to the nearest gym that has will allow me to drop the bar when I do power cleans. I know that I’d last all of two weeks with this. So I don’t do it.

It’s the same way with my diet. I don’t love to cook, I hate to do dishes. I dislike dealing with the grocery store. So I do my best to get it all done on Saturday or Sunday. Yes it means I eat the same re-heated meal for lunch every day for a week or two. But I know I will not cook something every night and there aren’t always leftovers to take for lunch.

Again this goes for recovery. Can you give up Conan or Leno to get enough sleep in order to make progress in the gym, on the field or in your next race? If not, you will eventually wear out and stall. Or if you can keep going, you’ll stall because of lack of intensity. So pony up for a DVR if you must, but get to sleep at a decent hour. Can you make the other needed steps to ensure you fully recover from not just your workouts, but all the other stress (both good and bad) in your life? Are a few Friday nights at the club not worth getting what you want in terms of physical fitness?

The last tidbit I have for consistency comes from watching some of my friends again. Although many of the successful ones do compete in a sport or have some passion that drives them to exercise, the most consistent seem view their workouts a simply a matter of routine. They have them worked in to their lives however they can work them in and they simply go and do their thing, take a shower and leave. No pageantry, no muss, no fuss. They do the deed and get on with life. It’s so low key that there is no stress attached to it. An individual workout isn’t a big deal. 

For whatever reason, that check-the-box-and-get-on-with-it attitude seems to make a difference. A bad workout doesn’t matter, because the box was checked. Gained a couple pounds? No big deal, box was checked. Was your favorite piece of equipment in use for your entire workout session? No problem, you did it with dumbbells today and the box was checked. They’re patient and they understand that as long as they are consistent they’ll eventually get what they want and more.

I’ll close with this quote, because it fits so well:

"But diet? Exercise? Just pick one and go with it. Don't go in circles, have the courage to stick with what you're doing." –Dan John

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Rule 10, in detail.

I posted my original "Ten Rules" on Reddit (I think of them as ten lessons, but I used the word rule in the text, so I suppose they are rules). Reddit's fitness section has collected a lot of solid information about fitness and the community there is generally helpful. The response I got was overwhelming. I re-posted it on the Dan John Q&A deck on Dave Draper's IOL. I was overwhelmed by the response there also. I was not prepared for that much attention.

The two items that received the most dispute were number's seven and ten. Number seven is what it is. Number seven needs no further elaboration in my opinion. If you're over, say, 25 with no previous athletic career and your only motivation to train is the idea that you'll be on a national stage in 24 months, your career will last about that long. It'll be shorter if you try and keep up with your "competition". And once again, for every exception you can find to this, I'm betting that in the beginning, they started small with obtainable goals.  

Number ten can be elaborated on. Why would you gain all that knowledge as suggested in rule nine if not to implement it? For me, just the idea that the people who make the more popular and proven programs know so much more than I do on the subject is enough. I yield to the experts. That's not enough for many people. There are several other good reasons to follow a proven program, all of them too long to go into detail in something as short as my original list.

One, raw novices overthink everything. I would do this constantly. I would try to build a program based around compound movements because those were supposed to be better for me, and I'd get something pretty good written down. Then I'd think, what about the rear deltoid? Or what about pressing at a 27.5 degree angle relative to the angle of the moon over the horizon at three a.m.? And I'd add something. Then I'd add something else. Then I'd add a few more things for glute activation or ankle flexibility or...

Eventually I'd have something that looked like that same old Monday 3 x 10 flat, incline and decline bench split that everyone starts out with as their really bitchin' "custom program". Every program I've made decent progress with has been simple to the point that most people look at it and say, "that's just not enough." Now the term Heavy is relative to your strength and size, so don't ask for specifics. Just trust me, when you really go Heavy with a simpler program, it is enough.

Two, most novice lifters can't let their ego go when it comes time to program. I love to deadlift. I like to squat. I enjoy the Olympic lifts. Now I think it's mostly because I'm better at them than many of my friends. Even my strongest friend and co-worker, Patrick, just matches what I can do on deads and he's 20 pounds heavier than I am. However, Patrick can destroy me on pull ups, bench and overhead press. Three things I have never really enjoyed. Those 20 pounds are packed solidly on this dude's upper body.

I have never, ever, made a program that truly followed the admonishment to work your weak point first. If I have come close, I've always left "Gas in the Tank" for legs or Oly lifting. The only reason I can think for this is simply ego. As long as I can pull harder and squat more, I'm "stronger" than anyone I know. Even though I'm not.

After two years of following one program or another with great success I'm considering breaking Rule 10 at the end of this week. The program I'm looking at creating ? 5 x 5 bench or overhead press, chins or pull ups, and Easy Strength style squats or deadlifts. Or maybe just Swings, Kettlebell snatches and squats. I'm just not sure if the added volume is what I need or not but I know I need to work on upper body strength. The point is that five years later, I may have just now gotten over myself.

Three, it's just easier to do something if an authority figure tells you to. Why did I do SS as written? Rip said so. Why did I do the 40 Day Workout almost to the letter? Coach John said so. Why did I do 5,3,1 correctly? Jim Wendler (the man scares me) said so. This is one thing that contributes to the success of programs that use a "Workout of the Day" like Crossfit*. You go to the gym and you don't have to think, you just do what's on the board, go as hard as you can and go home.

Dan John Talks about people having a finite amount of willpower, "One Cup" (however big that is), and once it's gone you're just kind of done for the day. Studies suggest there is a link between fatigue and blood sugar levels and poor decision making. I like to say that if it becomes a pain in the ass, you'll eventually quit. Doing the program as written means one less decision to make, one less thing to think and worry about and one less thing to add stress to your life.** You go in, do what the program tells you to do and you get the hell on with your life.

The fourth and final issue is that many people modify a program to work around their weak points or injuries. Mostly because they are impatient and will not put in the required work on basics or correctives. You can not, and should not, do Starting Strength with leg pressing as a substitute for squats because you have a list of excuses as to why you can't learn to squat. People do things like this and then blame the program's creator when it doesn't pan out. It drives me crazy because they never did the program they're slandering in the first place.

There is only one appropriate response...

Baring major orthopedic injury or disability, there is no reason I can see why everyone cannot learn to squat. Even if you are injured it can be done. The secret is that you have to follow Rule Two and focus on what you need most. If your knee is jacked, go get it fixed, that is what you need the most. Don't try to make progress until you've dealt with this. Squats are just one example. Thousands of threads litter the internet on this basic theme.

"How do I improve my bench with a bad shoulder?"

"My lower back hurts, what can I do to keep deadlifting?"

"How do I modify Starting Strength around a sprained ankle?"

"I don't like to squat or use barbells, how can I still do SS?"

Fix these problems (not knowing how to squat and being afraid of barbells are problems if you want to do SS) so you can do the program for the other reasons I listed above. Stop the dumbassery. Do what you need to do and pay your dues like everyone else.

One of the best real life demonstrations (beyond my own experiences) that I can give for the whole concept of Rule 10 are the workouts I did with a couple guys (names withheld) who needed some help with their PT test. To keep things interesting I brought in tires and sledge hammers, farmer's bars and a host of other things. The workouts however, mostly consisted of me finding new ways to disguise the Dan Martin Program Minimum every time.

"Okay guys, today we're going to do push ups, goblet squats and swings with some farmer's walks thrown in. Tomorrow we're going to do swings, push ups and goblet squats with sandbag carries...."

It worked. They both passed with flying colors and I was so proud I wanted to jump up and down a scream like an idiot. However, it would have been inappropriate in front of the four or five guys who didn't use a proven program and failed yet again.

*I have a reputation at work for hating Crossfit. I don't hate Crossfit, I hate the attitude some Crossfitters have. I also will never use the program personally as it doesn't match my goals, regardless of what some of the more hardcore xfitters believe. I do implement HIIT into my training on occasion, but not as a cornerstone of my program.

**This is also my strategy for diet.I prepare all my breakfasts and lunches for the week on Sunday and I don't have to worry about what to eat during the stressful work week.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Nutrition Bullet Points

Something I wrote down when asked for advice, only two of these are mine...

  • There is no bad or evil Macro nutrient. Fat is not the only thing that gives you a heart attack, Carbs are not the only reason you get a gut. The problems arise from eating too much of one or not enough of another. So it’s not bad to have a pasta dinner, but it might be a problem if you do it very often and don’t serve vegetables.
  • The old food pyramid was wrong. Vegetables should be on the bottom. I think that Meat and Eggs should be the next step up and Grains, Starches and Sugars closer to the top. 

  • Think like Craig Weller, if you could walk outside and find it, grow it or hunt it, then it’s probably good for you. If you can’t, it’s not health food no matter what the box says.
  • Dan John likes to say don’t eat “cardboard carbs”, which are things that come in cardboard boxes or plastic bags.
  • I like to sum it up this way; Buy ingredients, not food. Make food out of ingredients.
  • All diets work, if you stick to them. My wife and I proved this together with both Weight Watchers and Keto (Adkins). Find something you can stick to for a while.
  • Of all the things that people say are bad for you in excess, Sugar and High Fructose Corn Syrup are the only things everyone seems to agree on.
  • The old Calories in vs. Calories out model of weight loss works. You will lose some fat short term with the Redneck Adkins or Just Don't Eat Any Fats or Eat All The Grapefruit You Want diet, but in my experience you’ll eventually have to cut back on calories.
  • It’s easiest to plan your meals by what’s on sale. I go to the store and if pork chops are on sale, I have pork chops for lunch for two weeks. It lacks variety, and that sucks, but it de-clutters everything else. 
  • Sheldon* from Big Bang Theory has another good approach, Monday night is Thai Food Night, Tuesday Night at the Cheesecake Factory, etc. etc. Plan your breakfast and lunch this way, get your variety at dinner.
  • It’s not what you eat at Sunday dinner that makes the difference; it’s what you ate Monday through Saturday.
  • Protein and Fiber are good diet foods because it’s a lot harder to pack in 1000 calories of steak or broccoli in one sitting than it is candy. Steak and broccoli are more filling and not as “nutrient dense”.
*I looked up the schedule from BBT online, Sheldon would approve.

Friday, April 13, 2012

More on "Buying In".

What causes a lot of people’s trouble and woe with fitness is the issue with "buying in." They get emotionally invested in something. It becomes a point of pride. Part of their ego hangs on a program, pill or diet fixing not just their physique but everything else in their life. Either they hold on to something that doesn’t work for far longer than they should or they get sucked in by hype and crushed by the let down when whatever it is doesn’t pan out.

Now, there is a certain amount of shared responsibility in these failures. Looking for speedy weight loss in diet pills or rapid strength gain in some ultimate smoke down secret lifting program indicates an unwillingness to put in the required work. What other short cuts are these people taking? While it chaps my ass when people just give up on trying to improve their physical fitness because they failed to get a six pack after taking diet pills, these failures are a shared responsibility. What really makes me heart-burnt about the problem are the hucksters selling "healthy" food, magic pills and workout miracles we see so frequently these days.

People buy into DVD’s and gimmicks for the same reason they buy lottery tickets. No one remembers the losers. Behind every smiling face with a brand new million dollars there’s a massive line of people who wasted two bucks. Before you argue that the two dollars only bought them a chance at the million (which was delivered), the point is they had two dollars and now they don’t. There are people out there who spend their kid’s lunch money on this.

I don't want to discuss the morality of government sponsored gambling, but you have to understand that not remembering the losers and emotional involvement are used in some manner in every advertisement you see. There are psychologists who do nothing but study consumer behavior and work up new ways to get you more emotionally invested in a product. It’s the biggest legal con in history. They know what strings to pull and how to pull them. It’s devastating when you apply it to something that affects self esteem as much as weight loss and physical fitness. 

I’d like to introduce you to my new metaphor, his name is Bob:

Bob* lost 100 pounds by swimming with 50 pounds of weight tied to his testicles in a 10 foot deep pool. It’s my new extreme, fat burning program. Look at Bob. He’s about 45 years old and you could bounce a freakin’quarter off his abs. He’s like well aged carved marble. Bob followed my new extreme, fat burning program every day for three months and it worked for him.

Now, if I can get you emotionally invested in Bob’s success and if I can get you imagine yourself in his place after he completed my program then I can get you to overlook the blatant insanity of this. Think about being Bob at the beach. Think about being Bob in a speedo. The guy has to have a sack that would make a beast of burden proud. He’s like a walking Enzyte commercial. You want to be like Bob don’t you? (Ladies, you will probably need a different example to get the full effect.)

If I can pull this off, I’ll get you to ignore the sad scattering of bloated corpses at the bottom of my pool, strap up and jump in. Only unlike Bob, you’ll sink like a stone and wonder what the hell happened as you drown. See the thing was that because Bob was 100 pounds overweight, he was far more buoyant and had an easier time at first.

Bob is That Guy. For every bullshit gimmick, there is a guy who tried it and says it worked. Typically That Guy could have done anything and had success. It’s a fluke, it’s some random quirk of genetics or it’s "possibly" an outright lie. That Guy is the smiling asshole who hits the lottery twice and appears on the news to tell that trail of hopeless lunch money wasters that the real secret is just buying a ticket every now and then. I feel that an insanely high percentage of fitness products business models are based around someone trying to get you to bet on being That Guy. Even many of the good guys get in on this. Regardless of if they’re selling a decent product or not it’s likely that they’ll still want people to buy in as it means they have reached you. It’s just how advertising gets done these days.

That Guy is so ordinary, so friendly, that you can’t help but wonder why it didn’t work for you. That Guy may have even had things much worse than you. They told you this would work for everyone. They told you it would be easy. They showed you an "Average American" who got everything they wanted and more. They don’t even have to make outrageous claims to do this. They can do it all with implications and innuendo. But the end result is that many find something else to blame besides the hype. Genetics, a busy life with two kids or their own weakness and lack of willpower are all common themes.

In your head, the weights and my back alley psychology had nothing to do with your sad, watery death, it was because you didn’t swim hard enough. Remember, I certainly didn’t force you into this, you strapped that 50 pounds on by yourself, so it must be your fault.

You can’t bet on being That Guy. That Guy exists so people can sell you a product that does something you can often achieve with nothing but the right advice (stop eating junk food, for example). Even if he’s legit, it’s a fluke no one else will repeat. Objectivity is essential no matter what your goals are. You did X for three weeks, have you lost weight? Are you running faster? Do you feel better? Are you lifting more weight? You need a log and a metric to gauge success. Even if it’s just something like “it took me fifteen less seconds to recover from walking up the stairs.” That, for some people, is obvious and excellent progress.

I’m not trying to tell you stop trying new things. There is an answer for you out there. I’m trying to get you to stop thinking or saying things like this when something goes wrong:

“There’s just not a good way for a guy with three kids to stay in shape, there’s no time.”

“I’m just built to be overweight.”

“I could never do that, I’m too lazy.”

“I love food too much to go on a diet.”

“That’s a young man’s game, once you hit my age you’ll understand.”

These types of statements are poison. They sap motivation and drive. They put you back on the couch with the Mt. Dew and Doritos. They are all things friends and co-workers have said to me. Don’t expect to be the exception. Don’t blame yourself when you aren’t That Guy. Don’t bank on the fitness lottery. You wouldn’t retire after buying a single lottery ticket, would you? 

Invest your physical capital in what looks like stable, long term investments and evaluate how well they work. If they don’t work, re-invest. The reality is, even good programs and products fail some people. Gimmicks fail almost everyone. But something will eventually work. If you’re too caught up in what might be, you might never see it.

As always, you mileage may vary, but that’s sort of the point.

*For the sake of giving credit where credit is due, Bob is actually named Yang You-sin. He’s really hanging those weights off his wedding tackle. Apparently he’s quite good at it. It’s enough of a thing that his teacher has even produced a how-to fitness video in Taiwan if you’re looking for a good way to lose weight. I found him on Google.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Flexibility and the Stress Monkey

If you’re anything like me, stress is a daily fact of life. I used to feel I was immune to it. I would put my head down and barrel through it like a first world tank through a third world thatched hut. Case in point, I received an academic excellence award in USAF engine maintenance school while my oldest child was in laying in a NICU several hundred miles away, having been born nearly three months premature. (He’s a fine, healthy, almost ten year old today.)  

By comparison, I’m a blubbering wreck now. Ten years have not improved my capacity to “just leave it at work”. When I get really stressed I lose sleep, sometimes I forget to eat. My mental focus dissolves into staring at a wall for much of the evening or worse, the T.V. or internet. One thing is certain, I need to redevelop those coping skills (or possibly just the youthful ignorance) that I used to have. But that’s only incidental to what I’m writing about today.

Stress kills performance. The physical effects of mental stress are well documented. So how do you improve in the gym with a crushing load of work related stress on your shoulders? I think I may have an answer.

First, you have to consider the impact of stress on your ability to recover from and adapt to your workouts. This is the time when less and even less than that really are more. Now is the time to go low volume. Now is the time to keep it stone-axe simple.

In the book Easy Strength we are presented with a resource that helps greatly in balancing strength training with the demands of sport specific training that all athletes face. Go read it if you haven’t already. Understand this folks; if you don’t make money competing, your life is the sport. Consider that while I get to the second part.

The other key is flexibility. No, not touching your toes. We’re talking about flexibility in the sense that you can work your training into your life. If getting to the gym for a two hour workout adds stress to an already ulcer-ific day then it simply won’t work long term. Either you will break or, more likely, you’ll quit. This is where many of the principles and ideas in Easy Strength come into play for the everyday athlete. Coach Stevo sums it up nicely here. Of the many programs, workouts and ideas presented in the text, the 40 Day Workout (Even Easier Strength) seems to apply itself especially well to this idea.

I’ve bent Rule 10 into a pretzel with this program and still had good results. I’ve done the program as written and had good results. I’ve split it into two workouts a day and, you guessed it, good results. That’s the kind of flexibility the stress monkey needs. 

The only problem with this program is that the majority of people will see it as far too little when in reality, it’s just enough. This is the kind of program that 20 year old guys look at and ask, “When do you work your arms?” I’ve seen it happen. Let me just say this, if you can find a way to bench and do pull ups without using your arms, I’ll find you a program with nothing but skull crushers and curls two days a week.

So this is my review, I’ve finished two rounds of 40 days. Like the man says, I’ve set PR’s every few days after about day 20 both times. To the point that adding five pounds on 5-3-2 days or ten pounds on Singles day is almost a given. All of this under a load of crushing stress similar to situations that have made me physically ill in the past. Add the right diet (in my case keto) and body composition improves. I threw in easy runs as suggested by Pavel in the book and improved my 1.5 mile run time reasonably while improving my strength significantly, something that isn’t supposed to happen. Hey, my old all time record in the power clean is now an easy set of five and on top of that it's an easy double in the clean and jerk. After my first round of 40 days I was able to deadlift 405 for a double even though I had never pulled anything heavier than 375 in my life and nothing heavier than 350 in the last six months. That’s progress my friends. 

Don’t write this off as too little and certainly don’t write it off as something that only applies to athletes. Especially if you live with stress. This is a book and a program worth everyone’s consideration.