Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Fitness Conference Rundown

perform betterJust got back from Chicago, where I attended a three-day summit put on by PERFORM BETTER, which makes fitness products and puts on educational seminars like this one.

The main thought that ran through my mind throughout the conference was: wow, there are a lot of people in this field who are far smarter, better informed, and richer than I am, and let's face it, Freckles, many of them are about 10 years younger than I am.

These thoughts only occasionally threatened to drive me screaming from the room. In between bouts of hyperventilation and nausea, though, the weekend was pretty terrific.

A few specifics:
FRIDAY, 5/11

I attended a lecture by a guy named Thomas Plummer, who's a multiple gym-owner and zillionaire. He cursed like a sailor while sagely advising trainers to behave courteously. Early in his lecture he warned us that he'd piss us off, and I think he managed that. How could he not? Since he's management at the highest level and most of us are trainer-drones, it was like Donald Trump addressing a roomful of croupiers. Nevertheless, he's a funny guy, and certainly knows the industry. Some rather sobering information about the future of the industry, where we're headed, and who will survive. The upshot: I'm dead.

Next, I attended a workshop given by Ed Thomas called "The Subtle Side of Fitness." Ed's a courtly chap who carries himself like the lifetime martial arts/yoga/old-school fitness devotee that he is. Lots of interesting photos of old-time health clubs, overstuffed with gymnastic equipment, climbing ropes, ladders, balancing towers and the like. His point was that physical awareness and coordination, which used to be the cornerstone of the fitness "industry" (such as it was) should find its way back in. He's right, and those old gyms looked like a lot of fun. Reminded me of some photos I saw of a gym belonging to a guy named Mark Twight, who trained the actors for the movie 300. Twight's place is a converted barn with a bunch of heavy stuff to lift and things to climb and swing from. Give me that over Hammer Strength any day.

Thomas' presentation and photos also made me think of my late paternal grandmother (who was almost 102 when she died five years ago). Kathleen Walsh Heffernan was a P.E. teacher in the early 1900's, and probably worked in environments very like the ones in Ed's presentation: there were photos of young women climbing walls and ladders and hanging upside down in puffy skirts and what looked like ballet shoes, and Ed told us that this was where fitness was heading...again. Somewhere, my grandmother was beaming.

The final lecture on Friday was given by a guy named Bill Parisi on the art of networking. Parisi has a franchaise called "Parisi Speed Schools" that cater mostly to kids and adolescent aspiring athletes. It's a business model based on combatting childhood obesity--and on making Parisi lots of money, which it has done quite effectively. Parisi's one of those big, animated, passionate guys who could probably make millions selling sand in the desert. It doesn't matter if you know he's working Dale Carnegie's principles on you all day and all night: he's irresistible. One of his lessons was that you need to find a niche to market yourself in. After the presentation, I chatted with him a bit and told him I was getting into fitness writing. His immediate response: "THAT'S YOUR NICHE!!"

Got up early to work out at the Hyatt Regency's very civilized gym. Unsurprisingly, about a dozen very fit trainers were already there when I arrived at 6:30 AM, shunning the cumbersome machinery that cluttered up the place. Instead, they stood about performing difficult, full-body stuff that required enormous balance and coordination...not unlike the impassive, shockingly aligned exercisers in Ed Thomas' photos and prints. One female was cranking out more chinups than a Navy SEAL. The wave of the future indeed.

Felt pretty good about the workout I'd put in until about an hour and a half later, when, after a shower and breakfast, I sauntered into Juan Carlos Santana's "Combat Training For Fitness" class. Over the course of a forty-minute workout, he easily flattened the hundred or so trim, muscular training types who showed up. Santana has trained a host of Ultimate Fighter types, and relies primarily on continuous circuits using body weight squats, jumps, lunges, and a few primitive devices like elastic bands and kettlebells--another new-old school workout device--to get the job done. Suffice it to say that I wished I had neither eaten breakfast nor showered before that particular class.

Like Parisi, Santana's another magnetic guy who you could see leading a charge on a battlefield and getting everyone down to the residents of the local retirement community to follow him to certain death. I like to think I push myself pretty hard when I work out, but at Santana's urging I squeezed out more reps with more focus than I dreamed possible.

Amidst all the sweating, grunting and cries of "Oh God," Santana made an interesting point: that, from yogis sitting in lotus position for days on end, to monks who fast for weeks, to Native Americans who suspend themselves on hooks piercing the skin on their backs, the endurance of pain has long been seen as a pathway to spiritual enlightenment. It's a good observation, and ties into something I've been ruminating about for a few weeks now: the crossover between the pursuit of fitness and a deeper, more intangible awareness that turns regular exercise into something approaching a spiritual practice. You don't want to get too "out there" with that line of thinking, but there is something to it. As I've noted before, the language of religion and the language of fitness have lots in common.

Next was Al Vermeil, former trainer for the Chicago Bulls, and I by that I mean THE Jackson-Jordan era Bulls, not the wayward, motley crew of the last few years. Vermeil's job was to keep seven-footers healthy in one of the winningest, most popular franchaises in professional sports. He was good--an older guy with absolutely nothing left to prove, just out there, spreading a little knowledge and wisdom like there's nothing he'd rather be doing. He approaches training from the physical therapy angle, meaning that I've got to race to keep up with all the transverse abdominis, quadratus laborum, and piriformis talk flying about the room.

One interesting point he made was that many back problems and postural issues are the result of poor motor control of the fine muscles around the spine. The general public is often told that "strengthening the abdominals" will rectify back problems, but Al's point was that before you train the larger, superficial muscles of the core, you have to re-teach the smaller muscles--whose names are hard to pronounce, much less spell--to work properly. If you crank out thousands of sit-ups and leg raises without the smaller muscles doing their thing, what you get is a condition known as "global dominance:" big muscles doing the work of small muscles, which is like trying to write by moving at the shoulder joint rather than the wrist and fingers.

Last of the morning lecturers was Mike Boyle, whose book FUNCTIONAL TRAINING FOR SPORTS I've praised to the heavens in this space before. Mike's another highly-accomplished pro-sports trainer who to me, manages to bridge the gap between brilliant, analytical guys like Vermeil and guys like me who just want the lowdown on techniques we can apply to our everyday clients. Boyle has a cohesive fitness philosophy that is based on thousands of in-the-trenches hours keeping highly-paid athletes on the playing field and out of the rehab clinic. He's got a few controversial ideas, such as an incurable distaste for weight-room warhorses like the back squat and the barbell deadlift, but it's hard to argue with a guy who's had this much success and whose methods smack of so much good old-fashioned horse sense. A few months ago I saw a photo of me from when I was training using exclusively Boyle's methods, and even though his training programs are designed for performance and not aesthetics, I actually was looking pretty good at the time; you might have even pegged me as a guy who exercised regularly. Further evidence that if you train for function, form tends to follow.

To my surprise, Mike's lecture even offered some empirical evidence for my "Grow it early and you'll never look squirrelly" theory that I wrote about a couple of weeks back. On one hand it's good to have my instincts validated; on the other hand, now I can't claim it as my personal, unproven pet theory. Bless/curse you, Mike Boyle.

The early afternoon was taken up with more bon mots from Santana and Boyle, and concluded with a lecture by a guy named Ryan Lee, another fitness-industry-marketing machine cut from the Parisi/Santana steamroller-of-a-personality cloth. Lee made it seem like making scads of money in the fitness industry is and should be ridiculously easy. He also made it clear that I should update my blog at least twice a week (Ulp...Well, here's once THIS week). Lee had some great ideas and did make me think that there was plenty more I could be doing to jack up my business, and not just on the training end. So get ready for Andrew Heffernan's SIX PACK BRAND VITAMINS!

Didn't get much sleep the previous night because I'd ventured out from the confines of the convention center the previous night to attend a production of TROILUS AND CRESSIDA at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. Good show, but, immersed as I was in the world of training, my mind kept wandering to the methods I might use to improve the physiques, posture, and abdominal tone of the actors' physiques. Occupational hazard, I suppose.

Gray Cook was another sports rehab guy, an engaging speaker with a disarming down-home quality that, along with his running I'm-a-redneck joshing, disguises how brilliant he is. He's another physical-therapy guy whose approach I'd like to continue to learn more about. The primary thing I took away from his lecture was to address postural and functional problems before training for strength, or, For God's Sake, Knucklehead, Don't Let Your Clients Use Bad Form! A good lesson.

Alwyn Cosgrove was next, who I would rave about if I hadn't done so seventeen times in this blog space already. Suffice it to say he lives up to his hype, leads a brutal exercise session, and despite having only recently emerged from a barrage of successful chemotherapy treatments, still does a mean one-leg squat. Following the endurance sports models of Team In Training and Avon's Walk For Breast Cancer, Cosgrove has raised a nice chunk of change to fight cancer with his program LiftStrong--an 800 page book-on-CD filled with cutting edge fitness articles, information, and his own, very personal Cancer Diary. Cosgrove is definitely one of the good guys.

Finally, Eric Cressey is a preposterously accomplished guy who, at age 25, is not only a very successful powerlifter but one of the most highly respected trainers around. Just listening to his lecture and getting a sense of the depth and scope of his knowledge made me wonder what the hell I've been doing frittering away these last 36 years. Part of me wanted to jump up on the stage and strangle him in all his youthful, charming, and articulate glory, but one look at his arms and chest made me realize that even that was a futile fantasy. My only comfort is that someday, many, many years after I've fallen into decrepitude, dementia and death, Eric Cressey, too, will die. Sure, there will be streets in Boston named after him, an Eric Cressey annual parade, and hoards of future gold medallists tearfully crediting him with all their success, but he will be dead, and I must be thankful for that one, tiny blessing.

Overall, it was nice to be in an environment where fitness geekhood was the norm rather than a freakish abhorance, and to rub elbows with some of the top people in the field. Credit must be given to Chris Poirier, who was the conference coordinator and responsible for assembling this fitness dream team. The summit is coming to Long Beach and Providence, and it's well worth any trainer's time to check it out.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Blame Your Tools

A couple of weeks ago I roused myself from my inveterate tightwadhood, went out to the sports store and sprung for a new pair of swimming trunks and some nice running shoes, making for a purchase of about 130.00 bucks (150.00 if you count the fancy insoles that I was easily talked into buying). Always stings me to spend money on frivolous things like sporting goods--even if it is part of my vocation.

But the next day, I felt I was able to run faster and harder than normal, and the Achilles tendon pain that had been plaguing me for weeks was gone. The day after that, in my new, biker-short style trunks, my swimming was measurably faster. It took me fewer strokes to get across the pool, and unlike my old trunks, the new ones didn't stretch down to my ankles every time I did a kick turn off the wall.

The lesson's an easy one, though not always a cheap one: sometimes, you gotta blame your tools. My old shoes were months past their prime, and my trunks had clearly seen better days as well. If your physical activities are causing you pain, it might very well be a problem with your equipment.

So go ahead--blame your tools. Even if it doesn't make you instantaneously faster or stronger, your fancy new gear just might get you out to the gym, the playing field, or onto your bike a little longer or a little more often. And that's a good thing.