Saturday, June 30, 2007

Milo of Crotona's Training Log, 517 B.C.

Milo of CrotonaMILO OF CROTONA (Μίλων): Five-time wrestling champion from the 62nd to the 66th Olympiad, (532 to 516 BC); also a student of Pythagoras, the mathematician and philosopher. He wore a lion-skin cloak and carried a club like Hercules. In exhibitions, he would grasp a pomegranate so firmly that nobody could wrest it from him by force. It is said that in training he would hoist a calf upon his shoulders for a period of time each day; within a few months he was carrying a nearly full-grown cow. The story of his death has it that he came across a tree-trunk that was drying up; wedges were inserted to keep the trunk apart. Milo thrust his hands into the trunk, the wedges slipped, and Milo was held fast by the trunk until the wolves or a lion made him their prey. --compiled from online sources

Ides November, 517 B.C., 3:15 AM
Can't sleep, just got up to carve a word. Tough day: I found out that Olympian Amphorae has withdrawn its endorsement contract. Vince McMahonius says it's nothing against me; they're going for someone edgier, someone who hasn't dominated the Olympics since 532 B.C. Like my lion-skin and club aren't edgy. And I just put a down-payment on the summer place on the Amalfi coast :o ! Plus I'm still paying off that four-week intensive workshop with Pythagorus. Can't think about that though -- it's "personal growth" money, so it's tetradrachms well spent.

Gotta get it in gear and start training, but my heart's just not in it. I look at my reflection in the brook and can see I've clearly gained a libra or two around my midsection. Must have the lion-skin let out for next season.

The pregnant cow next door has finally stopped braying, so maybe I can get some sleep.

Kalends December, 517 B.C., 10:20 PM
Has Tartarus come from the underworld to torment me? Word has it that Olympian Amphorae is going to sign my old rival Timasitheus for their endorsement contract this year. He'll probably buy the summer home up from mine just to rub it in my face :( . Some Saturnalia this is turning out to be.

I had an exhibition today where I did my pomegranate trick. At the end there was stoney silence, so I shouted, "ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?" at them. But they clearly weren't :( .

Worse yet, the neighbor's cow gave birth today and they asked me help them lift it into its paddock. Whenever they need something lifted or wrestled or pulled out of a ditch, guess who they come running to. That's right, me. Do they ever realize that I lift heavy things for a LIVING? Do I go over there and ask him to build me an aqueduct?

December 2, 517 B.C., 8:30 AM
Nyx had barely lifted her curtain of darkness upon the land when I awoke with a mighty Charlie Horse in my hamstring. I'm not as young as I used to be.

Nones Januarius, 516 B.C. 11:30 AM
The neighbors sold a portion of their land to a developer who wants to put up a Ballyus's Baths. There goes the neighborhood, IMHO. Anyway, the upshot was that I had to schlep that damned calf into its new paddock -- which was four leugas away, and that calf weighs more than a few triens, let me tell you!

Walking those near-endless cubits gave me the chance to get to know the neighbor's daughter, Kristin, who walked the full distance with me. Nice girl ;) .

So sore I can barely move.

26 Januarius, 516 B.C. 3:20 PM
Shook off my lethargy and decided to have another go at repositioning the menhir that the neighborhood kids knocked over during the last Festival of Dionysus. To my surprise, I managed to lift it, easily. Maybe all that calf-lifting has done me some good (lol).

Kalends Februarius, 516 B.C. 6:15 AM
Knocked on the neighbor's door. Asked if I could borrow his cow for an hour or two. Was chased off the property with a pilum.

3 Februarius 516 B.C. 5 PM
Lunch with neighbors during which I explained my need for the cow. Much more understanding. Under Kristin's watchful eye, I hefted the cow again, which has already grown considerably. Planned to return daily for more cow-lifting in preparation for the Games this upcoming Junius.

Nones Februarius-Kalends Junius, 516 B.C., 10 PM.
Sorry for not writing for so long -- busy training schedule which I'll try to sum up below:


Jog in place
Jumping Jacks
Baby Sheep Overhead Lifts, 3 x 10 (warmup)

Ox-Cart Pulls, :30 x 5; 2 minutes rest
Hip Flexor Stretch 1 min/side
Menhir Flipping, AMRAP x :30 x 3; 2 minutes rest
Glute-Activation Side Raises, 25/leg

Giant Set:
Cow Clean and Jerk, 3 x 5
Cow Push Press 3 x 5
Cow Floor Press 3 x 5
Cow Squats 3 x 5
Cow Walking Lunges 3 x 1 leuga
2 minutes rest, repeat

Jump rope, 2 minutes

Postworkout meal: 4 librae horsemeat, Omega-3 fatty acids

I feel like a regular Atlas. If Vince McMahonius could see me now.

Kalends Quinctilis, 516 B.C. 6:00 AM
Olympic Games Recap

Well, suffiice it to say I cleaned up -- again. For fun I carried my training cow INTO THE STADIUM, which caused a big stir. Wore my lion-skin, thank you very much, and didn't even have to have it let out. Managed to throw Timasitheus in our second bout. So, yes, laurel wreath, the adulation of the crowd, showered with tetradrachms -- with which I'm going to buy up the whole block in Amalfi for me and Kristin -- yes, we're getting married. What can I say? A great day all around.

I've been spending my time trying to uproot a hideous tree that's taken over my front yard. Right now I'm using wedges to split it, but it's slow going. Ye gods, that tree will be the death of me.

I thought I'd just go quietly into retirement, but the other day, just for old time's sake, I started carrying my training cow around a bit, and a crowd of people gathered around, all wanting to know how often I lifted her, how far I carried her, how long I kept her up there. Had I considered taking longer between repetitions of lifting her onto my shoulders? Had I tried dragging her as fast as I could across the pasture?

One man seemed to think that I had it all wrong, that I should lift two small cows, one in each hand. Another thought I should lift a progression of cows of different sizes. Still another man assured me that my great strength meant nothing if I couldn't lift the cow while balancing on an inflated bladder! Meanwhile, a bald-pated man named Schulerius carved everything I said into stone tablets -- as if anyone would be interested in the lifting of heavy objects for recreation. As evening fell, a druid, skulking in the shadows, showed me a cauldron of something foul-smelling that he told me would give me the strength of Hercules. He said we could sell it together, and he'd put my picture on the bottle, but a moment later a centurion hustled him away in handcuffs.

Vince McMahonius is trying to get me to endorse his new line of cow-shaped stones that are rigged into a pulley contraption that he thinks will produce better results than cow-lifting. He says that pretty soon people will be more interested in the way their image looks carved on a stone tablet than whether they can win the Olympic games.

I'm not so sure. I mean, in 2000 years, who's going to care?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Exhortation to Exploration

There was a recent article on that 'We-Don't-Allow-No-Sissies' strength-training site, T-nation, about fragmentation within the strength-training community. T.C. Luoma argues that powerlifters and bodybuilders don't get along; figure models and female bodybuilders give each other the cold shoulder; mixed martial artists and practitioners of CrossFit stare angrily at one another from across the protein-shake bar. And no one serious about lifting weights wants to have much to do with those beanpole endurance athletes like runners or triathletes -- what are THEY trying to prove, anyway?

Now, you might not know who all these hypertrophied characters are -- suffice it to say that they're all variations on mesomorph types you wouldn't want to trifle with. I agree with Louma's point about the cliquey behavior of the different groups -- while at the same time still believing that, as Lou Schuler has suggested, there are more similarities than differences among their training methods. The serious rift, as I see it, is not how much resentment the average Powerlifter Pete has for the average Bodybuilding Bob, but rather their mutual disdain -- indeed, xenophobia -- for Pilates Priscilla, and other practitioners of different movement methodologies altogether.

And that's a shame, because looking outside the box -- and I mean WAY outside -- can cast fascinating new light on our usual, day-to-day practice, whether that involves lifting enormous amounts of weight, hitting a golf ball, spear fishing, or playing lawn darts. I'm not just talking about switching to a 4-iron or doing three sets of eight instead of two sets of fifteen. I'm talking about putting down the clubs and dumbells altogether and spending some time sitting at the feet of someone whose perspective you've never even considered.

Quick example: years ago I saw a video on something called the Alexander Technique, a movement system founded by an actor named F.M. Alexander who had a chronic problem with losing his voice on stage. Observing his own behavior carefully, he found that his neck and shoulders became tense whenever he made an entrance, constricting his breath and tightening his vocal cords when he spoke, and thus causing his frequent bouts of laryngitis.

To alleviate the problem, he developed a system of physical actions, reinforced by simple, internal verbal cues that counteracted his natural tendency towards tension. As a result of these cues, and the physical awareness they helped him develop, not only did his voice remain strong, but he found that he was far more energetic and spontaneous on stage, and far less exhausted afterwards. Codifying the technique, Alexander began teaching other performers, and they, too, began to move more freely and easily. Virtually all his students reported that any chronic pain they had been experiencing had disappeared, and that their physical endeavors now seemed smooth and natural.

All well and good, you say: Alexander's work may have relevance for performers who need to project an air of effortless relaxation on stage; but what about people who have to to produce real physical force, such as athletes and powerlifters? Does it help them?

The answer appears to be yes: perhaps the most striking aspect of the video was the footage of one of Alexander's disciples working with a karate practitioner who seemed tense and clumsy while performing his fighting moves. After the instructor made some simple adjustments to the man's neck, head and shoulders, his moves were not only flowing and energized, but clearly more powerful and effective as well. Though seemingly soft and internal in its approach, Alexander's methods also work well for practitioners of harder arts as well.

Apparently, the solution to getting stronger or faster, and perhaps leaner and more muscular, may not always lie in pushing harder and faster, but also in learning to work on a deeper, subtler level, to broaden one's awareness from simple, gross muscle movements to an almost dancer-like awareness of the entire body in motion.

The Alexander Technique is really just one of dozens of movement methods that are out there to be studied and learned from. For years I thought that a standard standing toe-touch was an effective hamstring stretch -- until I went to my first yoga class and discovered that I'd really just been reinforcing bad posture by over-flexing my spine. Leading back expert Stuart McGill has recently shown that people with back pain usually have stronger back muscles than people who are pain-free, thus debunking the common belief that strengthening the back will help alleviate pain. His solution? A series of fine-motor control movements that help his clients develop greater sensitivity, firing the correct muscles in the correct sequence for pain-free movement. Among his recommendations is advice on how to activate your tongue muscles for improved alignment!

Discussing tongue placement is not something that occurs to many strength and conditioning coaches (and no one, and I mean no one, has a mustache like McGill's).

In the ten-year period during which I practiced the martial arts, I must have studied with a dozen different teachers, all masters of one art or another. Occasionally I'd hear one of them enthusiastically recommend something that another teacher had vehemently rejected: a hand or foot placement during a block or a strike, perhaps, a particular style of footwork, maybe something about the optimal distance between you and an attacker. I liked hearing about the differing points of view because it reinforced my sense that the body's expressiveness was virtually limitless, that a given technique could be both foolish and brilliant, indispensable and execrable, depending on the context, point of view, and particular inclination of a given practitioner in a given moment.

The take-home lesson for muscleheads -- and as a 20-year veteran of strength training I'll happily include myself in that group -- is that we need to come out of our crustaceous, hypertrophied shells a bit and realize that in order to grow more, get stronger, and function ever more effectively, we'd do well to occasionally investigate entirely different schools of thought than the ones we're used to. I'd say that same to anyone who practices yoga and avoids strength training lest they "tighten up" or a t'ai chi master who refuses to experiment with kung fu lest it interfere with their perfectly balanced chi.

Even the smallest towns have master movement teachers out there, quietly passing on their lifetime of knowledge to anyone with an couple of free evenings a week. Seek them out. Let them open your mind a bit. Get out of your comfort zone. You'll probably get a lot out of the class, be smarter for it, and find a new perspective on your game of choice as well.

And they'll probably learn a lot from you, too.

(Last minute edit: Just read a new piece by T.C. Luoma in T-Nation that mentions tongue positioning during ab exercises! Oh, sweet irony!)

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

I've Fallen and -- oh, Wait, I CAN Get Up!

A couple of weeks ago I read an article in THE NEW YORKER called "The Way We Age Now" by Atul Gawande. It's not an easy read, not so much because THE NEW YORKER uses a lot of big words that aren't in my PlaySkool dictionary, but because it's about what happens to us when we get older, and who wants to think about that?

Well, no one, but after reading the article I decided that everyone, myself included, probably SHOULD.

Gawande, a doctor himself, talks about observing geriatrician Juergen Bludau examine an 85-year-old patient named Jean Gavrilles. After spending 40 minutes with her, and taking into consideration her numerous health complaints, Bludau concludes that

"The single most serious threat she faced was not the lung nodule or the back pain. It was falling. Each year, about three hundred and fifty thousand Americans fall and break a hip. Of those, forty per cent end up in a nursing home, and twenty per cent are never able to walk again. The three primary risk factors for falling are poor balance, taking more than four prescription medications, and muscle weakness. Elderly people without these risk factors have a twelve-per-cent chance of falling in a year. Those with all three risk factors have almost a hundred-per-cent chance."

Age 85 may be a long way off for you; it may not. Still, it's worth noting the statistics: if, later in life, your balance is poor, you take four or more prescription drugs, and your muscles are weak, it's almost certain that you will fall at least once over the course of a year. And keeping this patient from falling -- and therefore, keeping her happily out of assisted living -- is of more pressing concern to this highly-respected geriatrician than treating a possible cancer on her lung!

If only there were something we could do -- starting even this very moment -- that might lessen our chances of losing our strength and balance, and becoming dependent on multiple prescription drugs later in life. Heck, since I'm in the fantasy land of leprechauns and fairies, maybe this hypothetical activity might even feel good and cost us nothing. Maybe we could even do it with our friends and make it social! Maybe we could compete at it if we felt so inclined! Maybe it could also have proven mood-elevating properties, make us more inclined to eat well, and give us a greater sense of being in charge of our own lives and our own health!

What a dreamer I am, eh?

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Call the Functional Training Abuse Hotline!

Tell me if you haven't seen this at your local gym: a trainer who has every client perform every set of every exercise standing on some kind of unstable surface, one eye closed, perhaps juggling two balls in one hand and spinning three plates in the other. It doesn't matter whether the client is an overweight, middle-aged woman or a skinny fifteen-year-old boy, the guy looks like he's prepping his client pool to become an acrobatic troupe busking for handouts on the Santa Monica pier.

Ask any of these trainers what they’re doing and they'll tell you, with barely-disguised scorn for your tacky "dumbbells" and antiquated methods, "Oh, this is something called 'Functional Training.'"

The very name is polarizing, isn’t it? Like the terms "Pro-Life" and "Pro-Choice," the name implies that anyone who takes issue with your position must in turn be "pro" something abhorrent. Call your methods "functional" and you suggest that what everyone else is doing has nothing to do with the way the body functions. Which is, of course, absurd -- the body functions in a lot of different ways. "Functional" training emphasizes a handful of them, just as martial arts or racquetball or, for that matter, lying on the beach emphasize a handful of others.

Now, before I continue my hostile, one-sided rant, let me say that not all practitioners of functional training are as out to lunch as the hypothetical bonehead described above. Scroll down a few entries in this very blog and you’ll see my enthusiastic report on the Perform Better seminar, which was run by folks who call themselves functional training practitioners with well-deserved pride. But coaches like Mike Boyle, Gray Cook, and Eric Cressey analyze the physical functioning of their clients with expert scrutiny and base their exercise prescriptions on the specific needs of each athlete; they don’t just throw everyone on a Swiss ball and hope for the best.

Quick quiz: what more closely resembles something you actually do on a daily basis? Raising and lowering your body weight while standing with two feet on the floor -- i.e., squatting -- or lying supine on an inflated rubber ball, alternately pressing two medicine balls while keeping just one foot on the floor? Certainly, the first movement looks a lot more like something we do all the time: getting up out of a chair or a car seat, getting something out of a low cabinet, bending to pick up a child or a bag of groceries, heck, sitting your rump down on the toilet for a few contemplative minutes a day. By all rights the squat should be considered far more "functional" than the seated Swiss ball single-leg alternate medicine ball press, yet it's that second, patently absurd movement that would make the average gym-goer say "Now THAT'S functional training."

As if in order for a movement to have functional value it has to look like something you'd learn at clown college.

Look, I totally get stability balls, though I use them mostly for stretching and ab work. I get single-leg movements, though usually I use these moves in conjunction with conventional squats and deadlifts. My personal training certification forced me to learn so many stability moves that it makes me unstable just thinking about it. If I followed their system to the letter every client would practically have to walk a tightrope blindfolded before they could be trusted with anything so dangerous as a three-pound dumbbell. But why in the Sam Hill is the world of fitness so extreme that whenever an idea or a system either proves popular or has some actual merit or effectiveness -- as functional training admittedly does -- we get dogmatic and say, "Well, everything else must be pointless. Everything we’ve done up to this point is totally and completely wrong. We have to do everything standing on one foot, and once we can do that easily, we have to do it standing on a Bosu ball, then on a Swiss ball, and then on a Swiss ball on a Bosu ball on one foot."

Because for some reason that's functional.

I think what a fair number of otherwise smart people lose sight of while working from the "functional" angle is the fundamental question of WHICH function? In my snarky example above, what function is realistically being trained aside from the ability to perform that particular arcane exercise? For the person performing it, what carry-over will that movement realistically have outside the gym?

The sound idea behind functional training that's somehow gotten lost amongst Swiss balls and balance boards is that we should train movements that are as close as possible to movements that we encounter in everyday life. So adding a twist to an overhead press isn’t a bad idea, because I could picture, without too much effort, having to put an item on a high closet shelf and having to add a twist to get it in there just right. But I have to tie my mind in knots to figure out a life situation analogous to performing barbell curls while standing on a Bosu ball: bilateral butter-churning in an earthquake? Milking two inverted cows while standing on the fence between their pastures?

I sense some functional devotees poisoning their pens already, and I can hear it coming: instability challenges the nervous system, there's more proprioception (sensory feedback) to deal with, it's more challenging and more fun.

Well, regular old hardcore weight training challenges the nervous system as well. Smartypants strength coach Chad Waterbury is doing his best to educate the less gifted among us about that. More fun? Perhaps, for some people, but I'd postulate that the little bit of amusement that some people might get from imitating Cirque du Soleil performers comes at the expense of a lot of fat loss and muscle gain. Some resistance moves with an instability element added are indeed challenging, but the challenge is PRIMARILY going to be neural, not muscular. That is, the hardest part of doing the exercise will be keeping your balance, not lifting the weight, which means you're training yourself to be a better balancer, not a stronger person -- and not a significantly leaner person, either.

Now I'm all for balance work -- and for the fine-motor work that is another integral part of functional training as it's now defined -- but only if, and this is a big if, a person really needs them. My mother came down with a nasty case of the shingles a couple of years ago and had some trouble balancing for a while after that. A neurologist recommended she do some simple balance exercises -- which were essentially variations on some textbook functional training moves -- and they seem to have helped to clear things up. So functional training was valuable for her. Many older, deconditioned exercisers, people recovering from injuries, and those with severe muscular imbalances would be good candidates for this kind of work as well. But once good, healthy, pain-free, symmetrical movement patterns are established, and you no longer walk like Keith Richards coming home from Trader Vic's , it's time to put the Swiss balls away and get to work.


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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Preening Silverbacks and Skinny Guys with Attitude

So much of my time is spent helping people change the way their bodies LOOK that it's a breath of fresh air to be at an event where all anyone cares about is what your body can DO. Such was the case at the Dina LaVigna Breath of Life Triathlon in Ventura, where I competed this morning. Here's an event where men and women -- in often near-equal numbers -- compete first in swimming gear (wetsuits or swimming suits), then in biking shorts and tank tops, their rumps on proud display for anyone behind them, then, finally, on foot, in whatever soaking, sweat-, snot-, spit-, and sports drink-covered clothing has survived. Despite all the flesh on display, there's a refreshing lack of both self-consciousness and ogling.

To be sure, there are some sleek, lithe women and ripped, muscular guys at these events. But one admires them not simply because they look good, but because their bodies are trained for a purpose. Thighs are strong and toned not because of lunges around the block but because of hours of bike sprints, hill runs, and high-intensity sprint work. Upper bodies are muscular not because of multiple sets of Swiss Ball bent-over cable crossovers but because of thrice-weekly sessions of 50-, 100-, 200-, and 400- meter freestyle repeats. And all that work is primarily towards the goal of getting faster, and looking better is a happy side effect.

I don't want to moralize here, or criticize anyone's reasons for exercising. As I've said previously, if the idea of looking like Angelina Jolie gets you to push your limits five days a week, great. In our visually-oriented culture, pecs and abs and glutes have currency. But speaking as someone who resisted participating in sports until I was way past my prime, I have to say that the last few seasons of competing as a triathlete have been a real eye opener.

To be sure, in Ventura this morning there were some impressive-looking physiques. There were also some decidedly average ones. The funny thing is that it didn't seem to make much difference: I flew past a couple of guys who were built like Adonises; karmically, an equal number of chubbyish or beanpoley guys left me choking on their dust as well. And it did me little good, as I mulled over my final standings on the preliminary results board, to think "Well, I LOOK stronger than that guy," when 'that guy' casually flayed my bike split time by about five minutes." As in boxing, where a tough but skinny scrapper can often take apart the Hercules standing across the ring through sheer technique, guts, and persistence, preen-worthy muscles don't mean much when you're trading punches or trying to get your badass, hypertrophied self across a finish line in a respectable time frame. A strong heart -- both the literal and figurative kind -- will beat out a cover model body every day of the week.

It's worth remembering that in nature, form runs a distant second to function. Sure, there is evolutionary value in looking good: a healthy, strong looking marmoset stands a better chance of attracting a mate than his listless-looking brother. And maybe an alpha-male silverback's enormous size can deter potential usurpers from even trying to knock off the king (clearly these cowed gorillas aren't students of the sweet science). But in general the body looks better because it can function better, not the other way around. Basic Darwinism tells us that we're here to pass on our genes, and we're more likely to be able to do that if we can run from the saber-toothed tiger and bash him over the head with a rock than we are if we look good doing a front-lat spread. Like nature, sports favor the development of function over form.

Anyway, I've written about this before, so I won't chew my cabbage twice, but for these reasons, competing in something is definitely worth looking into for everyone. Seriously, everyone -- particularly those of us whose exercise routine usually consists of classes that promise to "tone" and "lengthen" the muscles (two almost meaningless terms, incidentally), or of workouts consisting largely of benching, curling, and crunching.

A triathlon can be a surprisingly manageable place to start: there are sprint distance events that take under an hour to complete (comfortably) -- the distances I did in Ventura were 1/4 mile swimming, 12.7 miles biking, and 3.1 miles running -- all well within the reach of the average exerciser (pro triathlete Eric Harr has a book called Triathlon Training in Four Hours a Week that promises to get you across the finish line in six weeks. The book's title is an exaggeration of his actual guidelines, but his book shows that it is possible to finish a triathlon on minimal training.)

But if endurance sports aren't your thing, that's cool. But most of us can find something to compete in. is a great place to start; you can scroll through a pretty darn comprehensive list of sports in your area and see what appeals. Chances are there will be a division for amateurs, or over-50s, or one-eyed people under 4 feet, and even if there isn't, so what? A woman with ONE LEG did the triathlon yesterday, and in case you haven't seen it, these guys are multiple Ironman finishers, so what's your excuse?

Here endeth the soapbox.

For anyone who's interested, I managed to pull off a fairly respectable time in the race. I hadn't swum in the ocean seriously in over a year, and I spent most of the quick 1/4 mile in the water bemused at how unlike pool swimming such an event is. With dozens of nervous guys to your left, right, fore and aft, elbows and feet flying in dangerous proximity to your eyes and face, murky water all around you, waves of varying sizes swelling beneath, salt water sloshing down your throat, a short ocean swim like the one at Ventura bears about as much resemblance to a pool swim as actual warfare does to a game of Risk. I'd forgotten just how ungraceful and comical the swim portion of most triathlons can be, but I've come to appreciate that no matter how poised and ready the competitors are, no matter how much precision and planning they've brought to the event, every triathlon starts out in an awkward melange of arms, legs, churning water, and hyped-up energy, reminding us from the outset what eager, stumbling, flailing fools we can be. So the swim was short, chaotic and funny.

The bike portion was the surprise: I was expecting to average 20 miles per hour or less, but was surprised to pull into the bike-run transition having averaged 21.4 miles per hour over the 12.7 mile course, shaving a couple of minutes off my predicted bike-split time. I traded passes several times with a determined-looking guy on a very fancy-looking bike; this seems to happen a lot -- there's someone in the lineup who's just about as fast as you are, and without saying a word, you kind of pace one another.

I always try to relax a little at the top of the run. "Jello legs" are common at the run start, because your muscles have been primed for cycling and thus the hamstrings haven't been working at all while the quads and glutes are on overdrive. So I usually try to plaster a grin on my face and take in my surroundings a little, which along the beach in Ventura are lovely. Passing the mile mark I opened it up a little, finishing the 5K in around 22 minutes, just about the time I expected.

Preliminary results had me finishing in about 1:08, good for 5th place among the 35-39 age groupers, which is much further up the food chain than I expected -- mostly, I think, due to my totally unexpected spurt of energy on the bike. Final results aren't up online yet, meaning all this could change, but watch this space in case you're perversely interested.

An exhilarating weekend, all told. And a great event.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Triathlon, further news

Anyone following the saga of my triathlon prep will be pleased to know that have resisted extreme training this week and am, as of right now, healthy and up for my race on Sunday. Exercising moderately has been a revelation that I dimly recall from the last time I detrained in the week leading up to the LA Triathlon a couple of years ago. On Wednesday I biked 19 miles -- my usual to-and-from-work bike commute that I wrote about here, but I actually took it easy. I obeyed traffic signals. No one cursed at me for endangering them or cutting them off. I didn't finish my ride in desperate need of a three-hour nap.

Yesterday, I went to the pool for a swim -- which I did in my wetsuit, which I haven't worn in over a year. Yes, such overkill in a pool made me look like Martin Short in the sychronized swimming skit on SNL, but humiliation is part and parcel of race-prep. Although it took me awhile to get reacquainted with the suit, I swam a relatively-easy 2000 meters, only pushing it about half the time.

My lack of soreness and general high energy has been an important reminder: as in, oh yeah, I don't make a dime from all this exercising -- why do I spend my life training like an Olympic athlete?

Today all I'm doing in the way of exercise, if you can call is that, is mowing the lawn. And perhaps teaching Kate some karate, which is something I started doing at her behest a couple of days ago. She developed an interest last week, when I was picking up some takeout and took her along for the ride. On the way to the restaurant, she stopped and peered through the storefront window of a local karate studio. Seeing the men and women in their black-and-white uniforms enthusiastically trading punches and kicks, she asked me, "Why are those waiters fighting?"

Which led to her current interest in the martial arts.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Dr. Robert Klein, Asthma, and Exercise

Back in 2003 I got in touch with a doctor who used to treat my asthma when I was but a wee wheezy lad in the allergen-rich back woods of rural New Hampshire. In the years since I was a regular patient of his, Dr. Robert Klein had managed to chip away at the ever-growing American asthma epidemic, diligently chasing down every lead in the search for how to control and cure this vexing condition. And although asthma has grown -- significantly -- in the years since (the number of afflicted Americans currently hovers around 20 million), Klein has headed up numerous "asthma camps" for kids dealing with the problem, and, using his parent/child class intervention methods, has virtually singlehandedly cut way down on emergency room visits, missed days of school, and money paid by insurance companies for asthma treatment in his home state of Rhode Island.

Not many physicians are interested in asthma: it's a disease with no sexy cures or surgeries, and little of the nobility or glamour that attends oncology or AIDS research. Attempts at curing even a single patient are often maddening and futile: with no known cure, and a shocking number of new cases developing, sometimes late in adulthood, the focus has to be on controlling symptoms. Asthma disproportionately affects poor and disadvantaged Americans (probably something to do with natural and man-made pollutants in inner cities), meaning that the front lines in the fight against asthma tend to be in not-very attractive places.

Despite these downsides, Robert Klein, bless him, has taken on asthma with a vengeance, and has legions of healthier, more active, less frightened patients -- largely kids -- to show for it.

Dr. Klein and I resumed chatting because he was interested in putting his 30-plus years of clinical experience into a mainstream book about asthma treatment, and he wanted to include -- indeed, foreground -- an exercise program specifically tailored to help control and reduce asthma symptoms.

Although my asthma symptoms had gotten much less severe in the years that I began to exercise seriously, I had never really thought that perhaps I was a legitimate case study; that my results were typical of kids with asthma who exercise. I had thought that my asthma had gotten better in spite of my growing obsession with exercise; in fact, it had more than likely gotten better because of it. Klein pointed me to an interesting study that showed that a disproportionate number of Olympic and professional athletes had asthma. Having asthma, it seemed, was a little like spending your life carrying 30-pound dumbells in each hand: you might not seem fast or strong when you're carrying them, but once you put down the weights -- that is, control your asthma symptoms -- you're stronger than almost everyone because of the extra weight you've been carrying your whole life. Asthma appeared to condition the body to make do on less oxygen, much like training at altitude makes sea-level competition easier for endurance athletes.

Although we hadn't spoken much in over ten years, Dr. Klein and I quickly realized that we had the makings of a good writer/trainer and star-physician team, and that our doctor-patient relationship could serve as a kind of background, cheesy but inspiring tale of triumph over adversity. In the course the next few months, I whipped off a 70-page book proposal, we secured a literary agent, and began shopping our book around to publishers.

The unfortunate upshot was that no one was interested. There are lots of books about controlling asthma on your local Barnes and Noble shelf, but all of them deal with herbal remedies and the like, things you can do that mimic a hospital approach to disease: treat the symptoms when they become a problem. Our book was more preventative in nature, and required a more active participation in the treatment of their disease.

Editors had their own reasons for passing on our book, but I think that what underlay all of them was that they felt readers wouldn't want to take that much responsibility for their health. They wouldn't want to put in the time. They'd rather just take a pill and forget it.

Although it resulted in the rejection of a book I'd spent a year developing, the more pessimistic side of me has to begrudgingly admit that my experience as a trainer -- and observer of peoples' attitudes towards their bodies -- often bears out these editors' point of view. Many people don't seem to want to assume good stewardship of their bodies; as frustrating and expensive as it can be, they'd rather pay exorbitant fees to doctors and pharmaceutical companies, and wade through the quagmire of the American health-care system than to put in a few hours a week on a much more convenient, cost-effective and proven insurance policy also known as exercise.

But the can-do, sunnier side of me sees things differently -- that people do in fact want a sense of control over their bodies, and are happier when they feel that their health is in their hands. One of the strongest indicators of depression in creatures as far down the food chain as rats is a sense of being out of control of your destiny, unable to influence your environment. I wonder if that's not one reason people find hospitals so depressing: as a patient, you simply don't have control; you're at the mercy of the machinery (unless you're my mother, who cajoles, bullies and otherwise railroads doctors into doing whatever procedure and prescribing whatever drugs she deems necessary for whatever condition, real or imagined, that she presents. I don't know how she does it.)

Conversely, taking charge of our health is incredibly empowering and, I believe, healing in itself. In his intensely personal "Cancer Journal," published in the ebook "Liftstrong," Alwyn Cosgrove recounts in real time his internal, psychological fight against the cancer that twice threatened his life. As a former international tae kwon do champion, Cosgrove conceives of his cancer a a ring opponent, writing of his desire to make the disease his "bitch," and to "kick its ass." Cosgrove is a funny writer, but I believe that this kind of thinking -- and very likely the mere act of writing it down -- helped him make his impressive recovery from the disease. Lance Armstrong, who survived an especially advanced and aggressive strain of cancer, fought his disease with a similar singlemindedness-recounted very candidly in IT'S NOT ABOUT THE BIKE -- and equally stunning success. Less famously but no less remarkably, my friend Mia Memel, a skin-care expert who owns and operates the spa-product line "Naughty Mommy," is also a cancer survivor and has spoken to me of getting through the disease very matter-of-factly, facing it down, indeed, almost melting her cancer with an unflinchingly positive attitude that refused to accept the possibility of failure, defeat, or death.

A condition as dire as cancer, of course, is an extreme example. But if in fact this sense of control, of being in charge of their own health as opposed to at the mercy of their disease and their doctors, did in fact help Cosgrove, Armstrong and Memel conquer their potentially lethal condition, then it's worth considering what the rest of us could acheive by taking on a similar attitude towards our bodies on a day-to-day basis.

I have my biases, of course, but I can't think of a better way to assume control of your body, and thus of your health, than exercising vigorously and often. Contrary to the opinions of the editors who respectfully passed on my collaboration with Dr. Klein, in my experience, people often need only a nudge in the direction of an enjoyable physical activity for them to take it on with gusto; I suspect this is particularly true for people with illnesses like asthma or cancer. Most -- though admittedly not all -- people are in fact attracted to the idea of being physical, and of inhabiting their bodies fully rather than haunting them like unwanted guests. The best part of my job is witnessing the transformations that can happen to people as they 'arrive' in a sense, in their own skin.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Triathlon, take two!

This Sunday, God willing, I'm participating in a triathlon -- the Ventura Breath of Life Sprint-Distance triathlon, to be precise. The distances aren't exactly Ironman-intense: 1/4 mile ocean swim, 12.7 mile bike, 3.1 mile run. It's not a long-hauler -- this race is all about finding a fast, lactate-threshold pace and sticking to it for the entire race, which I'm thinking will take me about 1:10.

My purist-weight training colleagues and friends will disparage my efforts, calling them "catabolic," "injury-inducing," and "useless for fat-burning purposes," all of which may be true, but since I don't have the genes for powerlifting-sports, much less the desire for that particular kind of physique, and love food, my body hair, and my pale complexion too much to compete as a bodybuilder, my competitive sport must perforce be long-distance in nature. I suppose there are team sports to consider, but those require things like "coordination," "finesse," and "skill."

Besides, I like exercising outdoors. I don't figure I'll live in Southern California my whole life -- so I'll have years to spend in gyms when my family and I put down roots in a place where it's cold and snowy most of the year.

No podium for me on this one, alas -- based on past results, the competition's going to be a little too fierce for this guy -- but if a bunch of guys drown, get flat tires, or get lost on the run, maybe I'll crack top-10 in the 34-39 group. Here's hopin.'

Looking at some overall results I see that many top-placers are in their 50's! These are folks who are out-racing people sometimes 20-30 years younger than they are. Quite an accomplishment, and a testament to the value of lifelong fitness -- I suspect none of those high-placers are weekend warrior types, but men and women who have been slogging it out regularly for at least as long as I've been alive.

So, since the podium is a pipe dream for me in Ventura, the real drama this week will be: can Andrew resist the urge to train WAY TOO HARD during the week when he should be de-training in preparation for the race? Today I pounded out a race-pace 5K, which isn't fast in any objective sense but takes some effort, and then afterwards did an easy 1/4 mile pool swim to recover. Possibly just a liiiittle too hard for five days out from race day, but still more restrained than I often am. Tomorrow I'll get on the bike and probably crank through 13 miles or so, race distance, at a moderate pace, then taper down for the rest of the week so I can hit it hard on Sunday.

As a fitness overachiever (why can't I be an accounting overachiever? Or a do-my-taxes overachiever? Or a make-a-zillion-dollars in Real Estate overachiever? Just asking.), it takes every ounce of will power, particularly after my week of enforced de-training that my weird flu forced me to take in a couple of weeks ago, to not go out there and pound every day. Watch this space to see if Andrew pushes too hard, makes himself sick and sore, and thus sabotages his efforts to place respectably in Ventura.


Monday, June 18, 2007

Poetry Blast '07!

A few months ago my wife discovered this poem online. It's by Mark Doty.

At the Gym

This salt-stain spot
marks the place where men
lay down their heads,
back to the bench,

and hoist nothing
that need be lifted
but some burden they've chosen
this time: more reps,

more weight, the upward shove
of it leaving, collectively,
this sign of where we've been:
shroud-stain, negative

flashed onto the vinyl
where we push something
unyielding skyward,
gaining some power

at least over flesh,
which goads with desire,
and terrifies with frailty.
Who could say who's

added his heat to the nimbus
of our intent, here where
we make ourselves:
something difficult

lifted, pressed or curled,
Power over beauty,
power over power!
Though there's something more

tender, beneath our vanity,
our will to become objects
of desire: we sweat the mark
of our presence onto the cloth.

Here is some halo
the living made together.

The upshot of most writing about exercise and sport can pretty well be summed up by the oft-repeated ABC Wide World of Sports tag line, "the thrill of victory and, agony of defeat." Real or imaginary, the stories generally end in one of two ways: great triumph or crushing humiliation. Don't get me wrong, as boring as I find most professional sports, I absolutely love books and movies about athletic contests. I must have watched ROCKY 40 times. And I couldn't name you three pro boxers currently in the circuit (well, maybe I could -- but only because I'm a fan of that other Rocky-offshoot: ESPN II's The Contender.)

I consider most sports to be the payoff in a metaphorical life-drama -- the third act of a drama in which I haven't been privy to Acts One or Two. Watching sports usually feels to me like walking in on the last half-hour of a movie, having missed all the setup. Lots of sound and fury, that to me, signifies nothing.

Strange to be admitting this as a trainer-guy, but I think what I love is the human drama behind all that sweat, technique, poise, and prowess. If I know something about the team I'm watching, or the players' histories, or something that's going on in an athlete's life off the field, then I start to care. I've got a sportswriter friend who convinced me that enjoying sports is a connaisseur's game. Know more, about the nuances of the game and about the players, and you love it more. The point was driven home to me last year when I went to see the Cardinals play the Dodgers with a close friend. Damned if my pal Johnny didn't know so much about each guy who came up to bat, about each person's quirks and proclivities and personal history that each pitch became a tiny three-act drama, and for once, in my eyes, the game took on a scale appropriate to its status as the mythic Great American Sport.

Now, on to Mark Doty's poem. It's about working out by oneself, which for most people bears about as much resemblance to team sports as Xbox has to Nascar. Still, something compels me, and people like me, to keep doing exercising, even to spend a fair amount of time and energy thinking and writing about it. In my more reflective moods I'll sit down like Rodin's "The Thinker" and try to apply the collective force of my few active brain cells towards figuring out what the Sam Hill keeps me and a handful of other gym addicts doing our thing.

We're talking about bench-pressing, here, not the flight of the bumblebee, but Doty still manages to get at something here, the "something more / tender, beneath our vanity, / our will to become objects / of desire: we sweat the mark / of our presence onto the cloth."

I often joke that without vanity I'd have no job. I still think there's truth to that, but I think as a motivating force vanity burns itself out pretty fast. At some point, you either start to enjoy working out -- be it the simple act of regularly and systematically confronting your limits, or the cameraderie of the gym environment, or the meditative place that a good workout takes you -- or you hang it up. Why some people start to enjoy this weird practice of "hoisting nothing that need be lifted" and others see nothing in it but lunacy is a mystery to me.

Some months ago I met a guy at the swimming pool who was going on 90 years old. He kept whacking me with his arm when we passed one another in the lane, so I stopped him, respectfully, to address the issue. Turned out he had shoulder problems and general mobility issues and good, long swimming form had long ago become impossible for him. And muscles, a six-pack, a killer physique? Not really in the cards for him, realistically speaking. Still, there he was, hashing away, doing his best, putting in the hours and the effort. He'd swum varsity at USC back in the day, and had even gone to the Olympic trials.

Was it in fact vanity that still motivated Bob? Or some need to relive his days of glory? Or was it the simple joy of doing it? Or was he raging against the dying of the light?

I'm enough of an exercise nut to think that using and moving the body, at whatever level we're capable, in and of itself, can be incredibly fulfilling. I think we actually learn from movement, just as we learn from reading or conversing or listening to music or looking at great art. Mark Doty's poem gets at some of the collective, communal, secular-religiosity of weight training -- and as I said he's on to something. When I'm doing my job right, I'm trying to help people see what that might be.

More on all this to come...


Friday, June 15, 2007

Decisions that Aren't

The fact that I get up early makes me sound like some kind of Ben-Franklin clean-livin' type, which isn't entirely inaccurate, but it definitely has its downsides. Chief among these is that I'm terrible company after about 8:30 PM. If Heidi makes arrangments for us to go out to dinner with another couple, she'll usually suggest that we dine at something like 4:45 in the afternoon, giving the sensible alibi that we'll "beat the crowd" at the restaurant. In fact, she's inevitably trying to keep her husband from getting banned from yet another LA restaurant by falling asleep in his soup, toppling into a tray of chicken flambé, and setting the dress of the woman at the next table on fire. I gave up on 9:00 PM movies years ago because my bedroom was more comfortable, didn't cost $5/hour to rent, and wasn't continually and unexpectedly filled with the sound of explosions, laughter and applause.

All this is to say that being an early riser has its liabilities: you pay for all that 5 AM virtuousness with poor, if inadvertent, social behavior. Thank god I now have a child to blame it on; now when I nod off at dinner tables I make up stories about tending to my poor sick daughter, and everyone thinks I'm just a good Dad.

So when I talk about getting up early, just remember that I'm hip to its downsides, too. I had to get up early this morning to bike in for a 7 AM client, and it got me thinking about that first moment of decision when the alarm rings, and something in you decides between getting up or hitting "snooze." If you choose the latter, the little drama gets played out again five minute later, sometimes for an hour or more, as you unconsciously restructure your day based on the newly-revised time of awakening.

Often people will tell me, "I tried to get up but I couldn't." Now, this may be true. And the choice to stay in bed may have been a good one. Getting up early does nothing for you if you don't get to sleep early, too. But the heart of the matter appears to be the rhetorical -- and, I'd also argue, psychological -- trick of denying one's own responsibiity for the choice.

The "should-I-get-up-early-and-work-out-or-not" dilemma is a good example of what I like to call 'Decisions we Opt not to Make So We Can Pretend We Didn't Make Them." Another classic one, for me, anyway, is Wait Till the Deadline Passes. If I'm wrestling with whether to apply for this or that academic course, or workshop, or get in touch with this or that person who could be of help, I'll often just put it off until some deadline, real or imagined, has passed and thus remove myself from the decision altogether: "I made a mistake, now it's impossible, or awkward, or pointless, and the opportunity's gone. I didn't make the decision, I just forgot." Easier to admit being absent-minded than it is to admit to being scared to try new things or too timid to ask for something I really want. Of course I DID in fact make the decision. I chose to let this or that opportunity elapse. But I'm pretending, for my own fragile ego's sake, that I didn't.

I'm being (painfully) honest here, ladies and gents, and I suspect I'm not the only one out there who's guilty of this type of non-decision-making decision-making. When I look over my life -- which is hardly a thing of beauty time-management-wise -- I realize that such denial of accountability has wreaked some pretty serious havoc in my life.

Television, the internet, videogaming, and the like eat up a staggering amount of time in the average person's week. We need to face the fact that we choose to give our time to these things. Now, downtime is important, of course. And all the fun, Candyland things we do with our free time have their place. But we can't pretend that time was stolen from us: every hour we spend doing something essentially pointless is a choice, not something foisted on us from above that we had no choice but to obey. We may be called at any time -- by our physician, our spouse, or boss, or some inner need -- to spend more time doing something difficult, be it exercising, parenting, or developing ourselves professionally. It's up to us where to find that time, whether to take it out of the time we spend watching "Lost" or the time we'd usually spend doing something else that's productive and important. The important thing seems to be to make important decisions consciously rather than procrastinating until the decision has essentially been made for us (my wife will want to me have this tatooed on my forehead. I'm not doing it, Heidi, you hear me?).

My daughter Kate is a great mirror. She has become quite the little debater, and what she lacks in rhetorical flourish she makes up for in passion and volume. Being a three-year-old, some days she simply has to do things she doesn't like to do, like take a bath, and often she will resist for up to half an hour, screaming, running away, hiding, begging for a reprieve, demonstrating her cleanliness, bargaining, cajoling, throwing fits, making threats. After a while, I'll try to point out to her that the time and energy she has spent in resisting the bath -- something that she knows is fun and good for her -- is now far greater than the time and energy required to just take the bath. The standoff with her soaking, pleading, rubber-duck wielding father is also far less pleasant than the bath itself will be. In her half-crazed, rebellious, "I'm not going to submit to The Man" mode, she never quite hears any of that.

And then I think to myself, what baths am I refusing to take in my life?

Bathe well, my readers. Bathe well.


Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Chokin' in Chile

I just got this a couple of days ago from a reader in Chile (Chile! I love the internet!):

Hi! I love this blog. I have a question for you. I live in a Santiago, Chile, where the pollution gets so bad that they sometimes recommend that you only go outside if you have to. The only places to go running are on busy streets. I don't mind that, but I have read that it's horrible for your lungs to exercise near car fumes. Instead of running I thought I could go on long, brisk walks. Would I still be taking in unhealthy amounts of pollution? And if the answer is that I should definitely be exercising indoors, do you have any good indoor workouts? As it is, I run in place, I do high aerobic dancing, jumping jacks, anything I can to get my heart rate up. Any suggestions? I would rate myself a medium on fitness level and I have no medical problems at all. Thank you so much!

Mamacita Chilena

MC: Hi. As a guy who lives in LA -- and a lifetime asthmatic, no less -- I know all about trying to exercise in places where the air is lousy.

Unless you're incredibly deconditioned, which doesn't seem to be the case, let's forget about brisk walking as a legitimate form of exercise. I know I've just casually slaughtered a sacred cow with those 11 words, but it needs to be said. Saunter into any hospital and you'll see that people who are almost DEAD can walk. Walking is fun, it's stimulating, it's better than sitting around on the couch, but it doesn't really challenge the body unless you're charging up a hill with all you've got (which no one does). Walking is recreation, really, like playing pool or ping-pong: you're on your feet, you've moving a little, but you're not sweating, and you're not challenging the body in a meaningful, sustained way.

Now don't stop doing something you enjoy just because I said it's not really exercise. It's still good for you. Just add other forms of exercise that are more challenging, such as running or cycling outdoors.

As to the air-quality issue, basically, if I work out outdoors, which I love to do, I keep it close to places that are green. So around here that means cycling on certain roads and bike paths and avoiding others (a supreme irony of the otherwise terrific LA river bike path is that is runs alongside Interstate 5 and crosses the 134 -- two of the busiest throughways on the West Coast!). Thank god for Griffith Park, which is a huge and very green oasis in the middle of this concrete jungle. So one obvious recommendation is to choose your roads or venues wisely. I read somewhere that air quality improves exponentially each 10 meters you move away from the side of a heavily-trafficked road. Don't know whether that's right, but it makes sense based on my limited recollection from 9th-grade science class of the way gases diffuse. You mention that city streets are really your only option, so that solution might not help you much.

Your second consideration, then, is to choose the time of day that you exercise with care. If I can get myself out on the road during the 6 AM hour on Sunday morning, cycling in LA is an absolute dream come true. Just me, those big, wide streets, and a couple of other cyclists beaming back at me as if to say, "Yes, brother, it's real, and I'm feeling it too." And because there's no traffic, the air is about as clear as it's going to be all week. I try to get back home before serious church-going traffic begins, but LA is so full of faithless heathens that even the city's whole 8-AM-service-attending population barely slows me down. Should you have other plans on Sunday morning, there are other lower-smog time periods during the week, and clearly you want to choose those rather than the hours surrounding heavy traffic times. Overall, early morning is probably best.

Failing those options, indoor workouts can be very effective, convenient, and time-efficient. The modes you mention above are useful, but potentially mind-numbing: doing a thousand jumping jacks while staring at the picture of your Aunt Lily bobbing up and down on the mantle can start to feel gerbil-on-a-wheely and faintly ridiculous after awhile.

Among indoor cardiovascular training methods, I'd suggest is interval-style calesthenics over anything steady-state for many reasons. I've written a lot about sprinting in the past, the body-weight exercise circuit I recommend here is really another variation on the old 'work hard and short, rest, repeat' saw. I suggested one possible training circuit in Stealing Workouts a couple of days ago, but you can really choose almost any multi-joint upper- or lower- body moves you want, and plug them into the formula: 30 seconds of intense work on the first movement, 15 seconds rest, 30 seconds intense work on the second movement, 15 seconds rest, and so on, rotating through the moves till you've burned through whatever time you have to work on that day (I call that the "Santana" interval, because I learned it from combat-trainer J.C. Santana). You can also use the 20-second/10-second work/rest interval I wrote about in my "Tabata" entry some time ago. Or make up your own interval, tell me how well it works, and I'll name it after you. 1 minute of work/2 minutes of rest can work, too, if you're going all-out for that minute. All these parameters are more effective all around -- for fat loss, cardiovascular benefit, and muscle-building -- than virtually any form of steady-state aerobic work.

Some possible moves to plug in are bodyweight squats, step-ups, split squats, lunges, lunges with dumbbell curls and/or presses, Bulgarian split squats, boxing punches (straight punches or uppercuts or hooks; resisted using elastic bands), pushups, squat thrusts, squat thrusts with pushups and jumps, squat jumps, sprawls, pushups, bench dips, bench jumpups, stationary bike intervals, front kicks or side kicks, dumbbell curl and presses, elastic band presses, elastic band rows, elastic band overhead presses or overhead squats, elastic band curls, any ab work, planks, punching bag work of all kinds, jump rope intervals, jump rope intervals doing doubles, crosses, 1-2 pattern, etc.

A stopwatch with a clearly legible face, a sturdy bench, a couple of elastic bands, a jump rope, some kettleballs or dumbbells, and you'll be all set for thousands of different possible combinations. Add a good-quality punching bag, gloves, and a stationary bike, and the possibilities are pretty much endless. Since you're working with time rather than reps, you can control the intensity throughout the workout, so you'll really never outgrow the workout.

These workouts are very tough, and 20 minutes is a LONG time working this way. I'd advise a fairly easy warmup, 10 minutes of this kind of work at first, rotating 5 exercises, then 5 minutes of stretching. Work up to longer sessions and alternate with outdoor exercise on days when the air is clearer!

Good luck, and thanks for the question!


Everyone's a Little Bit--

Avenue QIn the musical puppet show Avenue Q, there's a hilarious number called "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist," wherein each member of the show's ethnically diverse mix of puppets admits to unconscious stereotyping. In its gentle, up-tempo way, it's one of the most effective rebukes of political correctness I've ever heard:

Everyone's a little bit racist, sometimes
Doesn't mean we go around committing hate crimes!
Look around and you will find,
That no one's really color-blind,
Guess it's really something we should face!
Everyone makes judgements based on race.

It loses something without puppets' delivery, and the bouncy, Sesame-Street style score, but you get the idea.

I was reminded of this little number during a conversation I had last night with a friend I'll call Kathleen -- that's not her actual name -- the relevent points about whom are that she's a woman and that she's heavy. She told me she had watched the Joy Nash "Fat Rant" video, which I blogged about last week, and that she'd had a very ambivalent reaction to it. Instead of wanting to stand up and cheer, a reaction that the video provoked in many other similarly plus-size women (according to Big Fat Deal), Kathleen echoed some of Nash's most vociforous detractors: that Nash shouldn't feel good about herself; that she was kidding herself; that she was clearly unhealthy, should lose weight, and --implicitly -- that she should shut up. Discussing it with another heavy friend, whose response to the Nash clip had been "I wish I had her confidence," Kathleen had said, "I wish I believed her."

Kathleen parallelled her experience to a response she'd had to recent trends she'd noticed in dance. Lately, she said, the standards for female dancers' bodies have easing, and so one sees heavier women performing in prestigious venues where you wouldn't have seen them a few years ago. And again, instead of finding comfort, or empowerment in that development -- which is the response I would expect her to have, being a relatively enlightened, and let's not forget, plus-sized person herself -- she admitted that she didn't like seeing the heavier dancers. She even expressed something like disgust at seeing them.

It was a starling reaction, and a brave admission.

doveI recalled to her the print ad campaign that Dove soap launched last year, in which women of varying ages with average physiques posed proudly in bikinis: in groups, alone, in pairs, often hugging or draped around one another. I admitted that I hadn't found the pictures particularly beautiful; that my response had been, "Well, good for Dove, but I'm not really interested in looking at those women." They looked like they were playing minimalist dress-up games, and clinging together for some combination of concealment and dear life. And in spite of their plaster grins, I wondered whether those women really wanted to be hanging it all out there on Sunset Boulevard, either. My frequent encounters with these billboards, which were ubiquitous in LA at the time, felt like a poorly-conceived, never-ending blind date which neither of us wanted to be on.

"Look at us!" the Dove suits proclaimed through their self-satisfied images, "We don't use skinny, unhealthy models whose images promote anorexia and low self-esteem in young girls, and hey, aren't we making you appreciate the beauty in averageness?" Their cause was noble, but their methods were facile and smug and mildly embarassing after awhile I just wanted those pictures to go away.

I have no answers here, just an addendum to the Avenue Q characters' assertion, that not only is everyone a little bit racist, but that everyone -- even an educated, articulate, plus-sized woman and a guy who makes a good part of his living trying to help women lose weight -- is a little bit weightist as well.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Quick Plug

For anyone who's interested, I am now offering ONLINE TRAINING. Details will be up at anon, but anyone who's interested should shoot me an email. Thanks!

And for people just checking this site for new stuff: "Stealing Workouts," below, is a new post, that I wrote JUST FOR YOU, so don't miss it.


DF Tip #27: Stealing Workouts

Owen McKibbinA few years ago I read an embarrassingly-titled book called "The Men's Health Cover Model Workout" by, yes, a Men's Health cover model named Owen McKibbin, who probably has the most coveted physique in the kingdom of average guydom. He looks -- and this is probably what has made him such a long-standing ambassador for the magazine -- ALMOST like a guy whose body the average exerciser could roughly approximate without resorting to a lifetime of covert pharmaceutical-acquisition trips to Tijuana. He's not enormous; he models with his shirt on, too, and doesn't look like a rhino in a tablecloth like most bodybuilders do (side question: since we spend most of our lives clothed, shouldn't we exercise in a way that makes us look GOOD in them? I just ask). He's "just" an athletic looking guy whose job it is to keep his bodyfat in the single digits year round.

body typesHis relative normalness, of course, is an illusion: McKibbin has some serious genetics. Yes, as his book recounts, he's overcome a lot of injuries, and has worked hard for his muscles, but he's a mesomorph through and through: he doesn't tend to gain fat, and he doesn't have a tough time holding onto his muscle mass, either -- the relative sanity of his workout programs are ample evidence of that. Now, most people can exercise and diet themselves into a peak condition resembling a cover model's, but they usually lose it when they go off their Spartan diet/workout regimes, which is why Brad Pitt looks one way in TROY and quite another on the cover of US.

The only person I ever met who had the McKibbin-like combination of muscularity and leanness was a guy named Wayne who lived in the same apartment building as my family and me before we moved to the 'burbs of Glendale. The first thing I ever said to Wayne, which he had the kindness not to misinterpret, was "How did you get legs like that?" Turned out Wayne was a former Army Ranger and breaststroke world record holder. His athletic accomplishments were the result of hard work, for sure, but his enviable genetics had given him a massive headstart on his competition. When I met him, he hadn't worked out in years. And when we went to the gym together, it was clear he'd never done a squat in his life and barely knew a dumbell from a hole in the ground.

breaststrokeAnd this guy was leaner and more muscular than me on my best day, after 15 years of dedicated exercising. And he had done fitness modelling as a freakin' sideline, in the same shrugging way I might put in some hours driving a cab for extra beans. Jesus H. Macy, I wanted to stab myself in the head with an ice pick.

Okay, my resentment of sub-normal bodyfat types aside, Owen McKibbin has some smart things to say about fitness. He was the one who turned me on to sprinting and lower-rep weight training for muscle-building -- before both became exercise modes du jour in just about every mainstream fitness publication currently on the shelf. His exercise programs are clear and reasonable, very doable for most average guys, and adaptable in intensity for more advanced people as well. His diet tips are sensible and clear and remain more or less the parameters I use to guide my eating to this day.

But I think my favorite McKibbinism has to be the concept of "stealing" workouts.

To paraphrase Simon Cowell, 'What. The. Bloody. Hell. Is. That?"

Here we go: stealing a workout means figuring out a way, often against serious odds, to cram a workout into an overstuffed, overcrowded, overstressed day. The kind of day where you might say: "I can't possibly find a second to work out in this day. There just isn't time. It's totally impractical. If the great gods of fitness were to look down on me from Mount Olympus, they would say, 'You're off the hook, Sally J. Oppenheimer, no reasonable person could find a way to exercise today.'" Stealing a workout means to have a day like that and find a way to WORK OUT ANYWAY.

David CassidyLet's say you're home from a stressful day at work at 6:30 PM and you've got a dinner to attend at 7:45. You haven't so much as left your desk all day. Now, you COULD sit on the couch, catch your breath, pour yourself a glass of wine and savor your time off for an hour or so before you change and get back in the car. You could spend some time with your family. You could catch up on reruns of "Gilligan's Island," thumb through the latest issue of Tiger Beat (the one with David Cassidy on the cover). Lord knows I've burned through years of my life doing things far less productive.

But here's another option. Steal a workout. True, you don't have time to schlep to the gym. And you might not have all the energy you would have if you'd planned for the workout, eaten a high-protein/carb meal 90 minutes before, and gotten yourself psyched up to sweat. Assuming you don't have a commute as nasty as mine, you've got yourself just 40 minutes to get a workout in before you have to shower and get out the door.

Don't assume that whatever you do won't help. Don't assume that your don't have the time -- or the energy -- to make it happen for yourself. Just focus on getting through the transition period from harried office worker to refreshed exerciser.

So spend from 6:30 to 6:35 pouring yourself a glass of juice (yes, juice, for the love of god), maybe with a sprinkling of protein powder, and getting into your workout duds (hint: get some workout duds you feel dead sexy in. I personally think it's fun to exercise in t-shirts with holes that I've had since college, but that's my personal kink).

At 6:35, walk out the door. Take a watch with a secondhand with you.

  • From 6:35 to 6:40, ease from a brisk walk to an easy jog to get your blood pumping.
  • From 6:40 to 6:45, do some dynamic stretching of your major joints: arm swings, toe touches, ankle, knee, wrist, and neck circles. Pay attention to what you're doing, work with increasing range of motion, and use the time to "arrive" in the body you've essentially been using as a brain-storage chamber all day.
  • From 6:45 to 7:00, do thirty-second sprint repeats with two and a half minutes between repetitions. After each sprint, and while the clock is still running, drop and do a set of 10 pushups. Perform a total of five sets of pushups and five sprints.
  • From 7:00 to 7:05, do some easy jogging, jumping jacks or calesthenics to bring your heart rate down.
  • From 7:05 to 7:09, perform a circuit of four exercises: squat thrusts (stand, bend to pushup position, jump legs back into squat position, stand up for one rep); pullups on a monkey bar (jump up to the "up" position to make it easier on the upper body); step-ups onto a stair -- higher for more intensity, lower for less; and walking lunges. Do twenty seconds of exercise one, rest ten seconds, move to the second exercise, and so on, unil you've done two sets of each for a total of four minutes.
  • From 7:10 to 7:15 make your way back to your doorstep, do some easy stretching -- the yoga sun salutation sequence is one of my favorites, but then I've got a soft spot for touchy-feely things. Sue me, I'm married to an astrologer. Bring your heart rate down, breathe deeply.
  • At 7:15, walk inside, take shower, change clothes, and hit the restaurant. Your body will be craving healthy food at this point, so you'll be all the less likely to order the sausage pizza with pepperoni, extra cheese, and extra cheese inside THAT cheese.
Serious exercisers: you can can cut down on the rest between sprints, try to match your 30-second distance with all five efforts, elevate the feet doing pushups, perform a tuck jump at the end of each squat thrust, and do two-legged jump-ups rather than step-ups onto the bench. Less conditioned people, you can rest longer and go easier on the sprints, perform pushups with the hands on an elevated surface, do body-weight partial squats instead of squat thrusts, and do partial pullups or simply eliminate pullups from the rotation and do a couple extra sets of other moves.

beachLast week when I was in Hawaii with my family I squeezed in one of the most fun workouts of my life. While on the beach, I did 20-second boogie-board pulls with my daughter and niece in tow. When that got too tiring I pulled them one at a time. Then I caught my breath and did 10-rep sets of "alternating kid overhead throws" where I'd lift each child overhead rapidly, release them briefly at the top, catch them on the way down, put them down, and move onto the next child. Then I did pushups with both of them on my back, then just the bigger one, then just the smaller one, then with no weight at all.

Gilligan's IslandWhen I have to get up for an early morning workout and the alarm goes off when the raccoons are still poking through my garbage, I remind myself that the hardest part will be the act of getting out of bed. Once I've done that, autopilot takes over until I'm actually exercising, waking myself up, and having fun. Stealing a workout is the same way: it's that transition period that defeats most people, that moment when you ask yourself "Am I up for this?" Just answer yes! Overcome your resistance to move, and pretty soon you'll find yourself out the door and exercising. And pretty soon after that you'll be done -- and happier, healthier, and more energized for it.

And Gilligan won't have missed you.


              Sunday, June 10, 2007

              Confessions of a Sick Athlete

              Well, ladies and germs, time for your host to help himself to a sizable slice of humble pie, topped with a healthy dollup of crow.

              I've got a tip coming up that will be posted here and going directly out to subscribers (which you, yes, YOU could become if you submit your email address at!) on the concept of "stealing" workouts -- that is, cramming in an exercise session when circumstances seem to be conspiring against all your best health and fitness intentions. I stand by it, but let's just say that the events of the last few days have made me realize that you can take these things a little too far.

              Quick sum-up: last week my family and I met my wife's brother and HIS family in Hawaii for a few days. My wife, Heidi, and I had our usual pre-vacation subtle mini-spat on the plane. You have to picture the two of us, settled into our seats, our adorable three-year old between us, already excited about seeing her cousins and visiting this mythical tropical locale:

              HEIDI: You aren't going to try to work out while we're in Hawaii, are you?
              ME: Well...
              HEIDI: I mean, we'll be hiking, snorkeling, swimming, and running after kids all week -- you don't REALLY feel the need to add a formal regimen on top of all that, do you?
              ME: Here's the thing, I've got a triathlon coming up the weekend after we get back...
              HEIDI: Perfect, you need the rest, then! Plus, when was the last time you actually took a week off from exercise? Seriously?
              ME: I took a week off during our honeymoon!
              HEIDI: In 1999?

              I realized that if I was going to exercise in Hawaii WHILE KEEPING MY MARRIAGE INTACT (capitalization mine) I would have to do so on the sly. On the down-low. Under the radar. Like many wives, Heidi has a pretty much omniscient radar, so I knew that trying to work out without her knowing would be an exercise (ha, ha...) in futility. So actually getting away with it was pretty much a foregone conclusion. But I could maybe figure out a way to do it unobtrusively -- no scouring the island for the best equipped gyms, no daily, forty-minute round-trips to the local Olympic-sized swimming pool. I was expected to enjoy my surroundings, sip fruit-flavored alcoholic beverages with my brother-in-law and his family, and generally Be. On. Vacation. Oh, lord, the deprivation.

              So I did what's referred to by those of us with severe fitness problems as "stolen" workouts, which as I said I'll cover in more detail in my upcoming tip. And as I'll proudly describe, I jammed in some pretty intense sessions of beach-sprinting, calisthenics and stretching, all outdoors, with improvised "equipment," in the lovely environs of Kauai. Being in a setting like that, when everyone has their shirts off pretty much all day, does something to one's motivation. Maybe I was the palest guy on the beach, but damnit, I was going to be one of the fittest. And failing that, I was going to be trying the hardest.

              We got back last Tuesday, and on Wednesday I did a "brick" workout (that's triathlete-ese for a multi-sport exercise session) consisting of biking and running at full tilt for about an hour total, in preparation for the triathlon which was to be held on Saturday. Because I'd been away from my bike, and from "formal" exercise for a week, I really pushed it, figuring I had to catch up for my time off -- which when I now think about it wasn't really time off, but, if anything, time spent exercising more intensely than usual, supplemented by entire days of hiking, kayaking, snorkelling and the like. My workout on Wednesday was tough as hell, as I tried to replicate race pace and intensity over the same biking and running distance as my upcoming race: a tiny fraction of that of an Ironman race, but proportionately far greater in intensity.

              Checking the results of past races on the web, I saw that my practice times easily placed me in the top three in my age group for this particular event. This meant that, assuming that a truckload of ringers didn't suddenly materialize in San Dimas that weekend, I could be pretty confident of a place on the podium. At a small race, perhaps, in a small California town, pernaps, but hey, a medal's a medal, and for someone who never did much in the way of competitive sports until I was in my 30's, they're nothing to be sneezed at. I went to bed Wednesday night practicing my acceptance speech.

              Well, to quote Mr. Wilson, my driver's ed teacher, "WHAM! It happened." I got sick as a dog. Some witch's brew of two parts plane travel, two parts race-performance-anxiety, and seven parts sheer foolish excess laid me out but good for about three days, starting late Thursday night, continuing till this morning, when I blessedly began to feel just a touch more human again.
              Needless to say, despite the pep talks I gave myself Friday evening, replete with images of a flu-infected Michael Jordan scoring 50-plus points a game just a few short years ago, I missed the triathlon, something I feel particularly guilty about given the fact that I'd cajoled a client of mine into doing the race with me, assuring him that I'd be there right alongside him to cheer him on.

              So I was hoping that today's entry would be a triumphant report of a race well run, biked and swum -- instead, I offer myself up as a living cautionary tale. Don't leave your best game in the clubhouse. You know the new Reebok ad campaign about "Run Easy"? I've scorned it in the past; now I think they might just have a point.

              Pace yourself, people.


              Saturday, June 09, 2007

              Ask the Fitness Freak

              A reader named Jeff submitted a couple of questions about my periodization tip from a few weeks ago.

              1) How much fitness is enough? Do we really have to keep improving? Eventually, our bodies age to the point where we can't keep up the same intensity (I am starting to feel this now). Is there some safe plateau?

              I guess I'd say that ideally you're keeping up an activity level that is challenging and yet enjoyable throughout most of your life; that's certainly my goal. I do believe that many of the effects we usually chalk up to 'aging' may largely be due to inactivity. It's been shown, for instance, that resistance training can virtually arrest the muscle atrophy that's commonly associated with getting older, and if you are consistent with an exercise program throughout your life, you can maintain and even continue to gain muscle mass and tone very late in life. It's important that you don't slow down, however. Loss of fast-twitch (power) muscle fibers accelerates as you age if you don't use them... that's why the competition in the "over 75" division in Olympic powerlifting events tends to be fairly slim.

              Constant improvement I believe SHOULD be a goal. Maybe you're not bench pressing as much at 75 as you were at 25, but maybe your form is better, maybe your posture has improved, maybe you're bringing more awareness to your movement. That's an improvement. And if it's impossible in one activity or sport, or if your knees can't take running any more, try another activity.

              Your "safe plateau" question is a good one. Sure, there probably is a point where it's okay to slow down a little, not hammer it so hard, explore gentler activities like T'ai Chi, enjoy your outdoor time instead of trying to beat 15:00 in the 5K. It's probably easy for me to say as a young(ish) buck of 36, but I think the body can keep teaching us things right on through our lives, and to that end we SHOULD rage against the dying of the light -- fight against the downward spiral into permanent sedentarydom. Even as we respect and acknowledge whatever perceived limitations we might develop, we can still push up against them, challenge them, refuse to be imprisoned by them.

              The parameters for exercise for health that doctors recommend are actually quite minimal: something like 3x a week, 20 minutes at a stretch, doing something like brisk walking. I don't know how they come up with these figures, but presumably they're based on research; ie, studies ha ve shown that someone who strolls twice around the block three times a week has a marginally longer lifespan than someone who's completely sedentary. To me those exercise parameters make almost no sense. If someone spends a single hour a week doing the most moderate of moderate exercise and the other 167 hours a week sitting or lying down, isn't that person by definition "sedentary?" Isn't the walking part of their lives the anamolie and the sitting part the norm?

              So yes, there's probably a safe plateau -- some minimal level of fitness that will probably make you marginally less likely to die young. But I'm not really interested in advocating that type of fitness program. I'm much more interested in helping people enjoy their bodies, have FUN moving and exercising and being active right up until the moment they check out rather than just hanging in there for a few more episodes of "The Price Is Right."

              2) With periodization, do you have completely stop an activity? Does it count if you do things at the same time (like running and weights, or swimming and biking)?

              Sure! My definition of "periodization" is actually quite broad. Many exercise physiologists would say that switching from doing 3 sets of 10 reps to 4 sets of 6 reps on the bench press is enough of a shift to keep your body guessing, to avoid injury, to stave off boredom, etc., and would call that a "period shift." And they're probably right, because they've done the research. My point is that variation is almost always beneficial, whether it's a small change (changing acute program variables like sets and reps) or a big one (giving up biking for mountain climbing). So by all means, keep up your volleyball while doing T'ai Chi, keep up swimming while lifting weights. It's all going to help and support your other activities.

              3) What's an optimal period before switching?

              Exercise phys. people would tell you that in six weeks, the body has done all the adapting it's going to do to a given program, and that period is much shorter in highly trained athletes -- more like three weeks. But as I noted above, your "period shift" can be subtle: if you're a runner, you can break your daily 3 miles into three one-mile bursts. Or slow it down and do a fourth mile. Or so super-fast windsprints. Or run hills. Or change it up so that you're doing different lengths and different intensities all the time. Even going the opposite direction around the block is a change.

              Thanks for your questions!

              Thursday, June 07, 2007

              Fat Rant Link

              Okay -- short one today. My journalist sister wrote about this in the New York Times recently -- and it's relevent here so I'm going to plug it too. There are many "Fat Rants" on YouTube right now, but this is the first and the best. It's by a woman named Joy Nash, who's essentially standing up for her right to feel good about herself, to be and feel sexy, and to say a well-deserved f-you to the fashion industry for their failure to recognize the reality of how women are actually built. She's funny, she's articulate, she's beautiful -- and she weighs 224-self-pity-free, guiltless pounds. Can I get an "Amen"?