Category Archives: Exercise

Keep It Simple

The fundamental tenets of training haven’t changed much in decades.

When planning your workouts, keep these general principles in mind:

If intensity is high, volume is low.

Volume never increases more than 10 percent per week or more than three weeks in a row.

Weekly intensity is measured by the number of hard workouts, from none to three.

Follow hard days with easy days, not rest.

At least one day per week, and one week per five-week cycle, is devoted to recovery.

—“To Each His Zone,” May 1993 Outside Magazine

Katy Bowman

A friend stopped by our house last night. She wanted to introduce her new baby.

Before having a baby she was a free spirit untethered by a regular job or home. She even camped out in the jungle here in Mexico for a bit between house sitting gigs. Not the life for most, but she seemed to like it.

We started talking about carrying her baby around. I told her about Katy Bowman who only carries her kids. Everywhere. Even traveling around Europe she and her husband carried their small kids or had them walk.

Katy Bowman is a biomechanist, author, and mom with a couple of kids. I thought my friend might like her because of the way Katy lives her life.

Katy says most of us are basically sedentary when we aren’t in the gym or on the road, no matter how ‘fit’ we think we are because at a cellular level, hours of sitting leave our cells starved for movement. Just like bad eating habits stave our bodies of nutrients.

Katy thinks structured exercise is the movement equivalent of nutritional supplements. If you just run for exercise it’s like eating just one type of food at every meal. A healthy diet calls for a wide range of foods. In the same way, our bodies require a constant variety of movements throughout the day.

One of Katy’s solutions was removing all the chairs and sofas from her house ensuring regular getting up and down movements plus changing positions often while seating on the floor.

I’ll check in on our friend after a while to see if she can implement any of Katy’s ideas.

Training notes

Ryan Flaherty is a speed coach. He tunes up future NFL players before they participate in the NFL combine. There’s a lot of money riding on the combine outcomes. It’s serious business so he’s paid well for helping these athletes improve their numbers.

Flaherty claims speed is a skill, something you can learn, train, and get better at. He says, “Speed has everything to do with how much force you create. The two main factors in speed are stride frequency and stride length, and both are products of how much force your body creates with the ground. So if I can improve the amount of force an athlete creates on every step, I’m going to greatly affect his or her speed.”

Step counts, Flaherty thinks, are an incredibly reliable indicator of race results. After adjusting for height, the athlete taking the fewest steps during any race will win. Longer strides indicate the athlete is generating more force per step than his competitors.

Extra distance per stride compounds. In a 100-meter sprint it means a step or two less. In a marathon, with about 20,000 strides, an extra three inches added to the stride puts a runner a mile ahead of his previous (shorter stride) pace.

Flaherty uses the “Force Number” to accurately predict an athlete’s speed. The Force Number is the peak force applied to the ground decided by his body weight.

His go-to exercises are the trap bar deadlift and box squat, one performed early in the week and the other done later in the week.

Other than the trap bar deadlift and box squat, Flaherty says every lower-body move you do should be done on one leg.  The coach’s favorite exercises include Dumbbell Bulgarian Split-Squats, Barbell Reverse Lunges and Single-Leg Bounding.

He also likes “push-up starts”  – Lie on the ground and hands on the ground next to your chest push-up style. Explosively push yourself up and immediately sprint forward maintaining a forward lean; don’t stand straight up.

Art Devaney who’s a very fit 70 something backs a 15-8-4 sequence for his workouts, 15 reps with a light weight, 8 with medium weight, and 4 at your max weight. All done with no rests in between, and never going to failure.

Negatives (also called eccentrics) are when you lower a weight that you don’t have the strength to lift (yet). You just do the negative part of the movement. Devany likes negatives because you can work with a lot more weight, about 40% more.

He also sprints up a nearby hill. Sprint up and walk down several times, and then switch it up and sprint down to train to go faster.

Someone else pointed out that your 3RM should be about 90% of your 1RM. Once you have that 3RM, you can just use it for all your subsequent percentages.

And finally, A quick workout is the side plank on your palm. The palm support and a straight arm benefit shoulder health by keeping the shoulders down and latissimus tight with the body ramrod straight. Hold one side for 30 seconds, then the other, back again for 20, 15, 10, and 5 seconds, alternating sides. You can do it daily.

What I’m doing

nico, rico, and gelatoI’m eating gelato, sometimes.

I’m not trying to be the next world champion bodybuilder, but having more muscle and functional strength is handy. So if you aren’t defending your Mr Olympia title, you shouldn’t be training like one.”

My neighbor has been doing lots of calisthenics but hasn’t put on much weight though he’s gotten stronger. So we’re doing more weight less frequently according to a time-tested, simple program.

Mark Rippatoe said that, “Strong people are more useful and harder to kill.” He’s been successfully training people for a long time boiling it down to something he calls Starting Strength.

Starting Strength uses a few fundamentals lifts that will make you big, strong, and keep you safe in the weight room.

Workout A

3 x 5 (sets x reps) Squat
3 x 5 Bench Press
1 x 5 Deadlift
2 x 8 Dips

Workout B

3 x 5 Squat
3 x 5 Standing military press
3 x 5 Rows (or power cleans)
2 x 8 Chin-ups

It’s simple – do ABA one week, then BAB the next, and repeat.

Spelling it out, on week one, do workout A on Monday, workout B on Tuesday, and workout A  on Friday. Then the next week, do workout b on Monday, workout A on Tuesday, and workout B  on Friday. Follow this pattern every two weeks.

Warm up with a few sets of squats before doing the “work sets.” Make sure to rest about 5 minutes between each set to be fresh for the next set.

Add at least 2.5 pounds each week. You’ll be able to add more in your first few weeks. When you get to the point where you can’t add weight, take a week off. Begin again after your week off at a lower weight.

Eat a lot, because you’re building muscle.

Don’t go to the gym on rest days, let your muscles recuperate. Starting Strength was designed as a three-day routine to provide recovery time. You’re squatting three times a week, which is plenty.

That’s it. If you want to bore down into it more, Mark Rippatoe has a book called “Starting Strength.”

Self-care

pressureYou’re not slacking off if you put your well being first.

During preflight safety demonstrations, flight attendants tell you to put your oxygen mask on first, before trying to help anyone else. You’re not much use to someone else if you’re compromised too.

Most of do it or have done it, skipping meals until a project is done, staying up late then getting up early, saying you’ll do some exercise later.

It’s too bad that lots of people treat their well being as a sort of reward for something else they’re working on. People often don’t realize they’re short changing themselves, taking care of yourself shouldn’t be seen as a reward. It’s part of the process of being well which might help you better do those other things.

 

Hanging

musem displaysAdulthood and aging aren’t just about cellular processes degrading. There’s also the loss of mobility. Movements that adults can’t do anymore isn’t always just because they’re adults. It happens because they stopped doing those movements.

Most animals, including us, are designed to be mobile. In other words, we should be able to run, walk, jog, crawl, swim, climb, throw, and jump.

Because our bodies are efficient, they adapt to whatever position or movement pattern our bodies finds themselves in most often.

In his book on shoulder health, orthopedic surgeon John M. Kirsch, M.D. said he noticed his kids easily swinging on monkey bars and realized he couldn’t because he didn’t perform that movement pattern anymore. He didn’t need to. Or did he?

Along with our ape relatives, we’ve evolved a complex shoulder joint giving us the ability to hang from our hands. Dr. Kirsh reasons that because we don’t occasionally hang from our hands, our main shoulder ligament can become tighter, often leading to shoulder problems.

He figured out that by hanging (not pull-ups) every day or so you can fix or prevent many common shoulder problems. Don’t worry if you’re short for your weight, you can hang with your feet supporting some of your extra weight

After childhood, most people don’t need to hang by their hands, but you should. He thinks it’s smart to hang at least a little bit. You don’t have to live your life the way other people expect you to because something might sound “silly.” Remember, without conscious and deliberate effort, inertia always wins.

Everyday system for walking more

NYC early snowThis is the fifth of seven posts about simple everyday systems for managing your time, health, and eating developed by Reinhard Engels. Fifteen or so years ago, Reinhard was an overweight computer programmer who ate poorly, sometimes drank too much, and avoided exercising.

For most things simplicity is the ultimate sophistication and according to Thoreau, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”

So Reinhard created habits that were easy to do and could be sustained forever. He didn’t like complicated exercise routines – he wouldn’t like doing them and would likely stop if he made it to a goal.

About ten years ago, I stumbled across Reinhard’s idea for exercising for 14 minutes a day using a sledgehammer to mimic shoveling and other common movements.

Starting there, I checked out his other systems. They were easy to implement and claimed longterm results for himself.

I didn’t really go whole hog on his system because I was already doing, and enjoying, other stuff like lifting weights, but I have used his sledgehammer idea, more as a fun way to rehab from injury.

Anyway, what follows are my shortened versions, from his website and podcast explanations, of his “everyday systems.” I did it for myself to have the ideas in one spot, and for you too, if you’re interested.

“Urban Ranger” is a system for convincing yourself to build the habit of purposeful walking. It’s probably the everyday system I’d choose if I had to pick just one, because it’s at least as good for the mind as for the body.

You’ve probably heard a million things about how great an exercise walking is supposed to be. What you need, then, is something to get you fired up about this humble, uninspiring activity, so you’ll actually do it.

You need to convince yourself that walking is not some last ditch compromise shadow exercise, but that it’s exciting. That’s where urban ranger comes in. It’s like a role that you play, an alter ego. A way of re-imagining yourself so that walking becomes the most important, the most exciting thing that you could possibly be doing. Sound excessive? If you’re like me, that’s what it’s going to take to get you walking at all.

Think about it. We’ve invented one class of machine to spare us physical exertion and another class of machine to inflict it back on us again, but in an infinitely more boring, painful, and useless manner. We berate ourselves that we don’t labor in our leisure time, that we don’t spend our freed hours in that torture chamber, the gym.

You probably don’t exercise as often as you think you should, if at all. Your problem is that you’re squandering willpower on a hopeless task: exercise divorced from purpose. The solution: purposeful exertion; in particular, walking.

You probably can’t kill a caribou for dinner, or plow a field, or do most of the useful work that your ancestors did for thousands of generations. But you can still walk. And believe it or not, walking is enough.

Walking is still useful, interesting, and pleasant. You can think and observe while you walk. You get somewhere. You don’t need any special equipment or outfits. It provides great health returns on very little investment. And you can do it for the rest of your life.

Walk to and from work. If you work too far from home to walk the whole way, practice the noble sport of distance parking and walk part of the way. Walk to run errands. Walk up stairs instead of taking the elevator or escalator. Walk during your lunch hour. Walk when you’ve got cell phone calls to make. Walk to listen to an audiobook. Walk when you’re depressed. Walk when you don’t know what to do next.

The question should be “when shouldn’t I walk?” Walking is the default activity. It’s everything else that needs a justification.

For the sake of your own dignity and the beauty of the world, please don’t put on any silly outfits and pump your arms like a maniac. Just dress and walk normally. That 5% extra health benefit or whatever that you supposedly get from pumping your arms won’t mean a thing when you stop after 3 months because you are tired of looking like a bozo. You’ll unconsciously get faster as you do it a lot. So relax.

You are smarter when you walk. It’s not just the physical movement, it’s the changing scenery around you. I bring a digital voice recorder along to capture my brilliant ideas, to-do lists, and diaryesque inanities. Once a week or so I transcribe it to my computer. I thought of most of the other everyday systems like this, while walking.

How’d Alexander the Great’s army get to India from Greece? How about the Grande Armee of Napoleon, how’d they get all the way from Paris to Moscow? They walked. For thousands of years winning a war was largely a matter of being there before your enemy. So get the aqua sweatpants out of your mind, this is man stuff!

Everyday system for easy exercising

sledge hammer

This is the third of seven posts about simple everyday systems for managing your time, health, and eating developed by Reinhard Engels. Fifteen or so years ago, Reinhard was an overweight computer programmer who ate poorly, sometimes drank too much, and avoided exercising.

For most things simplicity is the ultimate sophistication and according to Thoreau, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”

So Reinhard created habits that were easy to do and could be sustained forever. He didn’t like complicated exercise routines – he wouldn’t like doing them and would likely stop if he made it to a goal.

About ten years ago, I stumbled across Reinhard’s idea for exercising for 14 minutes a day using a sledgehammer to mimic shoveling and other common movements. That’s my sledgehammer above. I painted bands on it for remembering where my hands go when I switch sides.

Starting there, I checked out his other systems. They were easy to implement and claimed longterm results for himself.

I didn’t really go whole hog on his system because I was already doing, and enjoying, other stuff like lifting weights, but I have used his sledgehammer idea, more as a fun way to rehab from injury.

Anyway, what follows are my shortened versions, from his website and podcast explanations, of his “everyday systems.” I did it for myself to have the ideas in one spot, and for you too, if you’re interested.

Take a sledgehammer and wrap an old sweater around it. This is your “shovelglove.” Every week day morning, set a timer for 14 minutes. Use the shovelglove to perform shoveling, butter churning, wood chopping and other motions until the timer goes off. Stop. Rest on weekends and holidays.

OK, this probably sounds a little crazy and arbitrary (and dangerous) to you. Let me explain why I came up with it. I think it’s virtues will then become apparent.

It was a rainy Sunday in 2002, I think. I hadn’t gone to the gym in over three months, and I was feeling painfully out of shape and antsy to do some kind of exercise. But it was raining outside, so I didn’t really want to leave the house, and the prospect of subjecting myself to the boring torture of the gym seemed even drearier. I wanted an exercise I could do right there, in my living room, without any fancy equipment.

I didn’t want to do sit-ups or pushups. I didn’t want to grovel on my stomach on the floor, like some degraded beast. I thought, “there must be some kind of movement I can do standing up, with the dignity of a human being. Some kind of movement that is natural and interesting, that my body would like to do, that would engage my mind , instead of just keeping it a helpless passive prisoner.”

I remembered reading something in some French novel about coal shovelers having the best abdominal muscles of anyone the author had ever seen. I forget where I read this. So I started making shoveling motions. Without even holding a shovel, just sort of air shoveling, I immediately knew I was on to something. The movement was fun, it, and even in pantomime it involved a lot of muscles, and my mind was engaged, I was thinking about the french coal miners, it was like acting, like a kid playing.

Now I could have gone outside to the back yard and actually started shoveling with a shovel. But, it was raining. I didn’t really have anything to shovel. But I couldn’t really shovel indoors, either. I’d need some kind of weight to move, for resistance, and I’d need some way of keeping it from scratching the floors or killing the cats.

That’s when it occurred to me: what I needed was a shovel with a weight attached to it, and a fuzzy glove to keep it from scratching the floors. At first I thought I’d call it “fuzzy shovel,” but “shovelglove” seemed catchier.

I went to the local hardware store, and after some experimenting, I wound up with something that worked: a sledgehammer with an old sweater wrapped around it. It had the right shape, just enough weight, and the requisite softness. And it was pleasingly simple.

Other movements besides shoveling occurred to me. My chief criterion was they had to have a natural analog, some useful movement that human beings had historically performed during the course of their ordinary daily activities. My hypothesis was that these movements would be inherently interesting to perform, develop muscles that might actually come in handy, and relatively safe. They might not target specific muscles quite as efficiently as the contrived motions of the gym, but that seemed an important consideration – what you won’t do (because it’s painfully boring) won’t help you.

The second criterion was that the movements had to be performed standing up. The first criterion pretty much makes this a given, historically people haven’t done a whole lot of work lying down, but I feel that erect posture is important enough to deserve its own particular emphasis. Before we were Homo sapiens, we were Homo habilis, the tool user, and before we were Homo habilus, we were Homo erectus, men who stood up. I firmly believe that you’ll feel better about whatever it is you’re doing (with a couple of obvious exceptions) if you do it standing up.

The third criterion was that the movements had to be convenient to perform in a modern living room. Plowing fields, useful as hell, you do it standing up, but I haven’t  figured out a way to do it in my living room.

I call these movements, “useful movements,” because that’s what they are, at least potentially. The trick is to really imagine yourself doing them — really shoveling, really chopping wood. It’ll keep you interested, and it’ll keep your form good. Form is important, you can seriously mess up up your back swinging around a sledgehammer like a spastic maniac. But form is also easy with shovelglove because you have this straight forward natural analogy for each movement. It’s almost more like acting than exercise.

So what are the movements? Over the years, I and people on the website have come up with quite a few. Here are the ones I do regularly these days: shoveling, churning butter, chopping wood, driving fench posts, hoist the sack, flip the lever, tack the bales, stoke the oven, the fireman, and chop the tree. The names are mostly pretty evocative, you can get an idea of what they’d be like.

I’d just like to say that my useful movements movements hypothesis turned out to be correct — at least for me and lots of other people who’ve posted to the shovelglove bulletin board. The movements are fun, so fun that I’ve only missed a handful of weekday mornings in almost five years, and I’ve gotten very strong. Five years ago I was a pudgy weakling who had never stuck with an exercise routine for more than a few months. Now I have forearms like Popeye, and a discernible, if not exactly bulging six pack. Looking in the mirror is not only good for my vanity, it’s like I’m a walking anatomy lesson. I have muscles in places I never knew existed.

Everyday systems

Saying - alwaysThis is the first of seven posts about simple everyday systems for managing your time, health, and eating developed by Reinhard Engels. Fifteen or so years ago, Reinhard was an overweight computer programmer who ate poorly, sometimes drank too much, and avoided exercising.

For most things simplicity is the ultimate sophistication and according to Thoreau, “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone.”

So Reinhard created habits that were easy to do and could be sustained forever. He didn’t like complicated exercise routines – he wouldn’t like doing them and would likely stop if he made it to a goal.

About ten years ago, I stumbled across Reinhard’s idea for exercising for 14 minutes a day using a sledgehammer to mimic shoveling and other common movements.

Starting there, I checked out his other systems. They were easy to implement and claimed longterm results for himself.

I didn’t really go whole hog on his system because I was already doing, and enjoying, other stuff like lifting weights, but I have used his sledgehammer idea, more as a fun way to rehab from injury.

Anyway, what follows are my shortened versions, from his website and podcast explanations, of his “everyday systems.” I did it for myself to have the ideas in one spot, and for you too, if you’re interested.

Moderation. Everybody from Aristotle to your Grandmother agrees that moderation is a good idea. It’s the wisdom of the philosophers and the virtue of the common folk. At least, it used to be. Of course, they had little choice but to be moderate.

Sheer scarcity kept them in line. Powerful traditions formed an additional line of defense. We, on the other hand, live in an age of material superabundance and declining traditions. So how, in the absence of the external pressures of scarcity and tradition, can we give moderation the teeth it needs to be effective? Think in terms of habit, semi-automatic behaviors requiring little willpower to maintain once they’ve been established.

It’s about establishing a consistent, almost automatic pattern of behavior over time. Much of the challenge of successful self-discipline is throttling your enthusiasm so you don’t burn out. Keep the focus on meeting some clearly defined, rigorously un-ambitious daily “good enough.”

Sustainability has to be the first thing you consider when evaluating a habit you want to acquire.

Maintenance is more important than progress. Progress is intrinsically temporary; maintenance is what you’ll be doing for the rest of your life.

Habit Branding. A good system should be “branded” with a striking image, pun, or metaphor. That way you’ll be much less likely to forget or ignore it, even when things get stressful. Some Everyday Systems are little more than a striking brand. Others have significantly more rules or back-story, but even these systems are well served by a brand: the brand gives you a handle, all you have to do is have the brand flash into your mind and you can easily retrieve all the rest.

No keeping track of things. The system shouldn’t require you to keep track of anything beyond the day of the week. You have too many things to keep track of already. Sometimes it’s interesting, but it gets unbearably boring and onerous fast.

Small time footprint. Ideally, the system should free up time, not take more of it. If your exercise routine, for example, competes in any significant way with your social life or even with your favorite television show, sooner or later your exercise routine is going to lose.

Socially Unobtrusive. Consider whether your habits are going to be unbearably irritating to the people around you. It’s not simply a matter of common courtesy: the consciousness of others’ disapproval will quickly wear you down.

Free or cheap. If you need anything at all, it should be nothing you can’t pick up at your local hardware store. 

Simple but specific. Common sense is great, but too vague to be a practical guide. Behaviors  involving complex decisions, might be precise, but can’t be automated into unconscious habit. A good system finds the happy medium: unforgettably simple but unambiguously precise.

Comic pragmatism. Self-help tends to take itself dreadfully seriously. But crazy is a great mnemonic device. If something is a little nuts, you’ll remember it. It’s a joke, but it’s also serious. It’s effective because it’s a joke.

Enjoyable. Successful self-discipline requires plenty of carrot as well as stick. Everyday systems make pleasure integral.

Is grip strength important?

petting the dogIt depends, but It turns out that your grip strength is probably more important than you’d imagine.

I heard a discussion between two guys from TV shows that strip participants of almost everything modern, forcing them to live primitively. Both participants were struck by how important strong hands were. Describing their time surviving as primitive humans might have, they said it was a constant grind. And also, that contrary to what you might think, surviving in primitive circumstances requires a lot of grabbing, holding, and twisting, but not much running or lifting heavy things.

That reminded me of a comment by Pavel Tsatsouline who has trained both Russian and US special forces. When he was asked what are the most important body parts to train, he said there were two, grip strength and abdominal strength.

Even in cultures that have specialization, sometimes grip strength is still important. In the Merriam-Webster dictionary under “dentist,” part of the definition said that “During the Middle Ages extractions were carried out by barbers and blacksmiths, or sometimes by specialist tooth-drawers, some of whom would spend hours pulling nails out of planks of wood as practice for extracting teeth with their fingers.” That’s grip strength.