Thursday, 23 October 2014

Jumping In

This is a bit of a sequel I think to the last post I wrote about uncertainty.  This one is about operationalizing that idea in training, and perhaps life in general.  It takes as a proviso that life is inherently uncertain and uses that as a jumping off point for, well…jumping off.

I’ve tried to get at this before in other ways, and maybe it’s at the root of why I began writing this blog in the first place.  It seems to me that many people are always waiting.  Waiting until the time is right to finally get fit, finally start a new exercise program, finally start eating better, etc.  Waiting until all the stars align and all the ducks are in a row.  There’s a reassurance to that sort of procrastination because it wards off any opportunity to fail.  If you’re waiting until your job/schedule calms down a bit before you start incorporating a daily running habit, you can’t fail at running ….because you haven’t started yet.  Same goes if you wait until you can afford all of the ‘necessary’ gear and equipment to start a new sport or activity that interests you.  You can’t look like an idiot because you never have the wherewithal to just start and see what happens.  Any number of excuses can be seen this way.  If I only had a coach or trainer to show me; if I only had an extra hour in the day; if only I lived closer to a gym; if only I had a bit more money to take a course in whatever….

I’ve recently been reading the book, Daring Greatly by Brene Brown, which is all about the power of embracing vulnerability. And to me, all of these delays stem from the avoidance of vulnerability.  They are all about avoiding the potential of looking like an idiot, or of failing at what we set out to do, or of not being good enough at something, or of getting hurt.  Brown defines vulnerability as risk, uncertainty and emotional exposure.  It’s not weakness at all, and in fact is a source of strength.

See, the thing is, conditions will NEVER be ideal.  You will never be 100% prepared.  You will never have 100% of yourself to devote to something.  You will never have 100% of the resources required to start a project or a new endeavour.  And if you wait for the ideal moment to materialize, you will end up missing all of the opportunities to just jump in and make the best of the situation…to try your best and see where that leads.

“The Perfect is the greatest enemy of the Good” - Voltaire

Giving 80% all of the time is better than giving 100% none of the time.  I see this kind of ‘perfectionist’ thinking all over the place.  People overwhelmed by dietary minutiae, so concerned that they get everything just right, that they end up throwing in the towel and eating like shit.  Why not just try to get it mostly right all of the time?  I can tell you from 20 years of self-experimentation that I look and perform consistently better when I allow myself the leeway to eat 80% great and 20% not so great…or thereabouts…the numerical details aren’t important.  The stress of trying to get everything perfect is far more of a killer than allowing yourself some flexibility and leniency once and awhile to be less than ideal.

It’s the same with training protocols.  Who do you think gets better results? The keyboard/forum warriors who quibble over ideal rep ranges and periodization schemes, equipment choices, free weights vs. machines, etc.?  Or the guy that gets up and gets out there consistently and does SOMEthing, ANYthing to move, to push, to struggle?  My money is on the latter…whether or not he has the latest fitness tracking gadget or the coolest gear or the best equipment.  He just jumps in and makes a go of it the best way he can.

But there’s great vulnerability in that approach.  If you try out a new sport, maybe you look like an idiot and someone laughs at you.  If you try some new type of training and you’re not quite ready for it, maybe you get a little bit hurt.  If you’re out for a hike and take some old overgrown path that no one uses, maybe you get lost.  But the possibility also exists that that path leads to some new vista that you (or anyone) has never seen before.

So this approach has a lot of risks inherent.  In training and fitness it probably means that you’ll occasionally get hurt and look foolish, but you’ll also excel in ways that few others will.  Taken into other spheres such as personal relationships, it likely means you’ll get your heart broken a few times, but it also means that you’ll meet some interesting people and have some good stories to tell your grandkids.  In business or professional life, you’ll likely make some mistakes and suffer some setbacks, but you may discover opportunities and talents that others would miss.

I’m not saying it’s easy, or that I make the daring choices all the time myself.  There is a seductive power in waiting and taking the safest approach…biding one’s time until all the conditions are ideal.  But there’s real beauty in failure.  There’s beauty in fucking up.  There’s beauty in the courage to let go of all the reasons why something might not work and instead just jump in and make it work as best you can.

Great song - not one that's gonna get you fired up for a set of deadlifts - but a damn good message nonetheless.  Listen to it after your workout with a cup of chamomile tea or some shit

Wednesday, 24 September 2014


Humans may crave absolute certainty; they may aspire to it, they may pretend, as partisans of certain religions do, to have attained it. But the history of science -- by far the most successful claim to knowledge accessible to humans -- teaches that the most we can hope for is successive improvement in our understanding, learning from our mistakes, an asymptotic approach to the Universe, but with the proviso that absolute certainty will always elude us. 

—Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

It’s funny how susceptible we are to overinflating our sense of control and understanding.  We think we have everything all figured out…right up until the point when we realize that we don’t.  These sorts of epistemological crossroads occur throughout a person’s life, sometimes small and other times larger, and I suppose we have a choice as to how we respond.  The first choice is to ignore the feedback and basically maintain one’s default position by explaining away the dissonance…either through externalizing the cause or inventing some sort of fable to explain how the input still fits our established worldview.  The second choice seems the more appealing one…that is, to accept the fact that we may have been wrong all along.  And perhaps ‘wrong’ is too harsh.  Maybe a better characterization would be ‘fallible’.  It’s the more mature acknowledgment that, at the end of the day, our understanding of why and how things turn out the way they do is feeble at best.

I suppose this is all in line with that famous Socratic assertion of being the wisest man in Athens precisely due to the fact that he was the only one to acknowledge his own ignorance.  Similarly, I had a brilliant philosophy professor once say, “I am a fallibilist before all else”.  In plainer speech, it’s simply the injunction that, even when things are going just as you planned, don’t get too cocky.

Now what does this all have to do with training?  Well, a lot I think.  But of course I could well be wrong, so I’ll let you be the judge.  Here’s an anecdote:

Last week I hurt my back badly during what seemed like a very routine met-con workout.  Light weights, circuit-style session that was in no way different or more taxing than what I had done a million times before.  Yet, midway through I could feel a twinge develop in my low back and it got progressively worse.  For the next two days I was essentially incapacitated, unable to do even the most basic tasks of daily living without a lot of pain.  Since then, it’s gotten gradually better and is trending toward a full recovery.  But the nature of the injury itself and the recovery is not the point.  The point is that, in the weeks leading up to the injury I was feeling strong and powerful…invincible in a lot of ways.  I was doing daily workouts, some two-a-days and the occasional three-a-day.  I was playing ball each week, doing lots of plyos, lifting heavy in the gym, running a good chunk of middle-distance stuff, flipping tires…and all the while not getting enough sleep and recovery.  But I was feeling on top of the world…right up to the point where I couldn’t put my own bloody socks on without grimacing in pain.  I had thought that I had it all figured out…until of course I didn’t.

I’m not writing this as a lecture on hubris.  There’s a whole body of Greek Tragedy that does a far more entertaining job of that.  What I’m getting at is that the universe is constantly telling us shit, and we have the choice whether or not we listen and pay attention.  If we’re arrogant and think that we have it all figured out, we miss it.  And sometimes there’s a big karmic slap in the face to really drive the point home.  Maybe, like me, you’re feeling like the biggest, baddest motherfucker in the gym and then are humbled by an injury that reduces you to feeling about as tough as an emaciated 5-year-old for a couple of days.  Maybe it’s something at work – you feel like you’re the expert on a topic and that you’ve nothing else to learn, until someone asks you a question that makes you feel like an idiot.  Maybe you get arrogant about your personal relationships.  You operate under the assumption that your marriage (or whatever arrangement you’re in) is stronger than all the others around you.  You start to subconsciously look down on those around you who seem to have so many problems and seem to be doing such a shit job of things.  Until some crisis happens to throw everything you previously believed into question.  The truths that we hold to be self-evident turn out to not be that way at all.

All of these situations are opportunities to take stock of one’s beliefs.  There’s a line I’ve always loved from the liner notes of Tool’s 1996 Aenima album that reads, “Beliefs allow the mind to stop functioning.  A non-functioning mind is clinically dead. Believe in Nothing”.  This isn’t nihilistic.  It’s an admonition to never allow oneself to coast or turn on the auto-pilot.  One must embrace the idea, not on a mere intellectual level but in a real in-your-bones sense, that everything we take for granted is fundamentally fragile.  As the 12th century Japanese poet Saigyo writes, “Drops of dew strung out on filaments of spider web.  Such are the trappings that deck out this world.”

I think that’s part of the reason why I enjoy running at night so much.  Late last night I was out doing sprints on the street in front of my house.  The whole world was beautifully dark and cool.  Here I am, exerting myself to my absolute maximum capacity, feeling at the peak of my power, when just one look up at those cold, merciless stars reduces all my efforts to the tiniest of insignificances. All sense of control and certainty evaporates into a sort of helpless reverence in front of such majestic indifference.  As though anything I could do to purposefully influence that massive, swirling cosmic machinery could have even the slightest of consequences.

The ‘happier’ corollary of all of this uncertainty, however, is that, no matter how bad things get, they can always get better.  This often happens when least expected.  I think there was a line from somewhere in Tolkien that the greatest gifts are those that arrive unlooked for. It certainly seems that way sometimes.  Alan Watts always wrote a lot about the law of reverse effort.  That is, that the harder you ‘try’ to force something, the worse it tends to go.  Far better to split wood with the grain than to try to work against it. For the same reason, we’re always drawn to people (in athletics, music, etc.) who make things look effortless.  This of course shouldn’t absolve a person from hard work or effort…not at all!  But I think it’s tied back to that whole concept of listening and being receptive to what the universe (or God, etc.) is trying to communicate. There are situations when one has to roll up one’s sleeves and persevere, but there are others when the only response is to change course or tactics based on the feedback that you’re being given.  Trying to control what is essentially uncontrollable is a recipe for disaster.  And the most serendipitous positives often come from what was originally perceived as a terrible situation.  An injury forces a person to explore new sports or other training modalities that were hitherto unheard of.  A job loss sparks a new entrepreneurial venture or leads to a more interesting position elsewhere.  A dissolving relationship makes room for the possibility of an even better one to develop.

We’re not, of course, mere leaves being blown about in the wind.  We do have the ability to influence some of the things around us through our efforts.  It’s arrogance that should be avoided…arrogance that we control more than we actually do.  I think it’s important, as much as possible, to cultivate the attitude of a student no matter how much of a master you feel you’ve become at anything.  True strength comes in the ability to learn and adapt…to be flexible.  The willow bends in the windstorm and survives…while the rigid oak resists and then snaps.  We get immersed in our own little echo chambers of belief.  We get tied up in certain ways of thinking about things and feel that we’ve invested too much in them to change course.  It’s the fallacy of sunk costs.

I think that’s what William Blake was trying to get at here.  Poor Newton, all his energies wrapped up in trying to analyze and quantify the small field in front of him that he understands, all the while blinded to the intricacies and complexities that lie just beyond that field.

We ought to be careful not to do the same, either in the realm of health and fitness or more broadly.  The exciting and transformative stuff often comes from humbly and open-mindedly looking outside our current paradigm. No matter how good or how bad things seem, remain open to the ever-present idea that they can change with a split-second’s notice. The skill is not in predicting or controlling those vicissitudes…it’s in listening, reacting and adapting in the most graceful way possible. Real wisdom lies in understanding our own limitations.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Ode to the Pull-Up

A friend and colleague of mine asked me the other day what the best exercises would be to improve posture.  She was looking to counteract the sort of hunched forward posture that so many of us experience as a result of sitting in chairs and staring at computer screens all day.  My immediate response was to suggest anything that would strengthen the back of the body, i.e. the 'posterior chain' that so many training gurus seem to speak about these days.  That is, I told her to do pull-ups, rows, deadlifts, supermans, back extensions, etc., anything that pulls the body backwards and strengthens the muscles to resist that forward, hunched posture.

On reflection, I realized that I recommended pull-ups first on the list.  I don't think that it was accidental.  To me the pull-up (chin-up too, don't get me wrong) is the perfect exercise.  If I was forced to only do one exercise for the rest of my life, it would be the pull-up.  My reasons are both pragmatic and metaphysical.
Besides what's been mentioned about posture, the pragmatic reasons are as follows:  They can be done anywhere with no equipment.  Do you have a body?  Great! You can do a pull-up.  It might be an assisted one at first.  You may need to jump a bit and work on negatives before you can do the real mccoy.  You don't need equipment or a gym.  You can build your creativity and resourcefulness by finding places in your natural or built environment that allow you to pull your body upward against gravity.  Could be a tree branch, could be a bar of scaffolding on your way to work, could be the underside of the stairwell in your office building, could be the monkey bars at your kids' playground.  No other exercise is as adaptable or scalable.  It CANNOT be outgrown.  When I was younger I struggled to do 3 or 4 regular bodyweight pull-ups.  Now I do them with 110 lbs hanging from a weight belt.  Nobody in the world is so strong that they can't find a more challenging variation to elicit further growth.  I'd also argue that no exercise give you a bigger bang for your buck in terms of both usable upper body strength and aesthetic development.  Want the illusion of wider shoulders and a smaller waist?  Do pull-ups. Want to be able to save your ass from a burning building? Do pull-ups.

Now for the airy fairy philosophical subtext.  The pull-up is not just an exercise, it's a powerful metaphor.  It's pulling yourself up by your own motherfucking bootstraps.  It's resisting the suck of gravity that drags our immortal souls down to the wretched earth.  It's telling inertia and complacency to go suck it.  It's rising above all of our self-imposed limitations.  It's saying that no one but me is responsible for my own success and happiness.  It's saying that not even the gravitational force of a planet can resist my willpower and the strength of my sinews.  It's showing yourself that no matter how tough things get, no matter how senseless things seem, no matter how much weight and shit and pain gets piled on you - there's nothing in the world that can keep you down.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Rubber Match

Here's an example of a really simple but effective conditioning workout that can be done with just a beat-up old tractor tire.  These aren't hard to find.  I picked mine up for $50 on Kijiji.  If you have farms anywhere in your vicinity, I bet they have old tires that they'd be willing to part with quite cheaply.  Mine weighs about 350 pounds.  My sledgehammer weighs 12 pounds but you can experiment with different sizes.  Again...very cheap...maybe $10-15 the hardware store, and of course will actually work as a legit sledgehammer too if you need it for such.  This stuff will last forever.  I've used this tire a lot and it still has that new tire smell (well not really, but it looks pretty good still)

"Tire 300" workout:

10 rounds for time of:

10 x tire flips (bend down and "sumo" deadlift/clean the tire to chest level and then push it over on itself)
10 x sledgehammer smashes (pretty self explanatory...just hammer that big rubbery bitch!)
10 x box (tire) jumps (i.e. jump with two feet onto the rim of the tire and then off again)

Therefore, each round is 30 reps in total.  10 rounds of 30 reps is therefore a total of 300 repetitions.  Complete one round nonstop and then take as little rest as possible before moving onto the second round, etc.  I find the flips the hardest, so I start each round with them.  The order of the box jumps and smashes could of course be reversed.

It's a quick but challenging full-body workout.  And it's a damn lot of fun.  There's no science behind the 300 rep total.  It's kind of a rip-off of the GymJones benchmark workout for the film 300, and also mimics the kind of rep ranges you'd see in a CrossFit Fight Gone Bad-style WOD.  Something that most relatively fit people are going to be able to do in under 30 minutes, and that you can gauge improvement by shaving time of your last attempt of the same workout.

One tip: do the flips on a soft surface like grass (or shallow snow in the winter).  It helps in allowing you to get your fingers underneath to clean the tire from ground to chest level.  Concrete\asphalt makes it more difficult to get the initial grip...though not impossible.

Happy flipping!

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Just the tip

I was doing some community tree planting this morning with my kids, and while we were waiting around, I started nibbling on some of the new growth that was coming in on the spruce trees.  If you look around at the conifers this timee of year, you're bound to see the new needles forming.  They are a totally different shade of green from the rest of the tree, and a much softer texture:

By now, my kids are completely used to me eating random plants and things growing all over the place, and they usually want to try stuff too.  These spruce tips were a huge hit however.  And well they should be - they're delicious.  Plus they're much cheaper vitamins than the pills you buy at the local pharmacy.

Long ago I had heard the story of how Jacques Cartier's crew had reportedly cured the scurvy from their long sea voyage by drinking spuce tea, which they learned from the local Iroquois.  The practice of using evergreen tea or flavoured ale, rich in Vitamin C (as well as a whole bunch of other vitamins and minerals), apparently became popular among the British Royal Navy as well.  I use it throughout the year, especially in the winter, if I ever feel a cold coming on.  However, this is the best time of year because you can just eat the new needle growth as a convenient trailside snack, rather than having to boil the branches down into tea.  They taste sour and kind of lemony, with just a bit of a Christmas Tree undertone.

I think you can use basically any kind of coniferous evergreen.  I've tried fir and pine as well, but spruce seems to me the best.  The only kind you absolutely CANNOT use is Yew.  That shit is great for making bows, but it'll kill you five ways before you hit the ground if you eat it.  Luckily Yew is pretty distinctive looking and it'd be hard to confuse it for other coniferous trees.  I've also read that pregnant ladies shouldn't use spruce tea, which is probably good advice.  I think if you're pregnant, you probably shouldn't go around nibbling on random foliage anyway, but that's just me.

For athletes, the advantages of Vitamin C are huge, of course for preventing illness but also for it's antioxidant capacity in terms of muscle soreness and recovery.  Spuce and pine have FAR more Vitamin C than citrus fruits, as well as a pile of other vitamins and phytonutrients.  No sugar and none of the filler shit that you'd get in vitamin pills.  Give them a try. But remember, just the tip....

Thursday, 10 April 2014

I'd tap that

I love trees. Not, as the title might suggest, in some sort of ‘unholy’ way (It’s actually quite ‘hole-y”, as you’ll soon learn), but I just love being around trees, the sound of their leaves, the way they look silhouetted against the evening sky.  But this time of year, I love them just a little bit more than usual, for the very utilitarian fact that they provide delicious sap.  Sure it came a little later than usual this year thanks to the brutal winter we’ve had, but my maple trees finally started running this past week.

I don’t have a huge woodlot or anything either, just a modest suburban corner lot with a grand total of 5 maple trees (I had 6 until a storm blew one down last fall, destroying some fence but thankfully narrowly missing both my kids’ playhouse and my boat trailer).  But on a day like today (around 6 degrees Celsius and sunny) the sap will be running out of those things like nobody’s business.  My method is to drill a hole in the south-facing side of the tree – I don’t think the height really matters all that much but I tend to make it about 2-3 feet off the ground.  I make them about 3 inches deep, and you could use a drill bit anywhere from about ¼ to ½ an inch.  I have an old hand crank drill that I inherited from my grandfather (which I like to use because it makes me feel like an old-time voyageur or something), but a regular power drill works fine too.   

The important thing is to drill the hole so that you can wedge the end of some plastic tubing firmly into the hole so that it stays there by friction.  I use just regular clear plastic tubing that you should be able to find for dirt cheap at any plumbing or hardware store.  I run each tube from the tree into the mouth of a 1.5 Litre wine bottle (Why do I have a tonne of empty 1.5 Litre wine bottles? Don’t you judge me!). Wine bottles work well because they’re narrow enough at the top that no bark and other shit from the tree will fall into your sap.  If there’s snow on the ground still, you can hold the bottle in place by wedging it in the snow (which has the added advantage of keeping the sap cool.  On a sunny day like today, that bottle will be full to the brim of sap by the time I get home from work.

Now for the interesting part.  You may be tempted to boil that shit down to make maple syrup.  Well don’t! Just drink it straight up.  I’ve been collecting sap for four years now.  The first year I collected massive amounts and froze it in my deep freeze.  Then one day we set up a propane cooker and poured it all into a big lobster pot and spend the day boiling it down.  It consumed almost an entire tank of propane to keep the sap bubbling away all day, and all of the stirring and monitoring the temperature to prevent burning proved to be more effort than the end product justified.  We ended up with about a Litre of syrup, and it was delicious.  But chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you aren’t shovelling down pancakes and waffles on the regular.  And if you are, you should really stop that you tubby bitch – that shit is bad for you.  Aside from using it as a glaze for grilled salmon or maybe sparingly in salad dressings, the uses of large quantities of maple syrup for the health conscious person, are somewhat limited.

But sap on the other hand…it’s nature’s Gatorade.  In the past three years, I’ve foregone the boiling down process and just drank the sap directly from the tree as an energy drink.

Sap from two different trees - notice the different colour

According to Nutrition Data (which I have no reason to doubt), one cup of maple syrup has 216 grams of carbohydrate (of which 192 grams are sugar).  When I boiled the sap down that year, I didn’t measure the ratio precisely (sap to syrup yield), but from what I’ve read, the usual ratio is about 40:1.  That is, you need 40 Litres of sap to yield one Litre of syrup.  That varies a bit through the season, and the species of tree (I’ve used Sugar Maple, Red Maple and even Manitoba Maple) but I suspect it’s roughly correct.  By that logic, a cup of straight-up sap would contain about 5 grams of sugar.  That’s only a teaspoon, which is a hell of a lot better than commercial energy drinks that probably contain 25-30 grams per cup.  It fits with the taste of the sap, which is like very mildly sweet water with a subtle treeish undertone (fellow Tolkien fans will get that one).  I don’t think it’s made me grow any taller or made my hair curlier, but it’s incredibly refreshing.  I haven’t been able to find a nutritional analysis of maple sap anywhere, but it stands to reason that it would have trace amounts of a bunch of vitamins and minerals as well.  I trust that more so than I do the manufactured ratios of electrolytes (mostly sodium) found in commercial drinks.  

According to this article, sap contains quite a bit of calcium, which might explain the folk belief that it was good for the bones.  I actually lived in South Korea for a little over a year between 2005-2006, but I was oblivious to the fact that this is the one place in the world where people seem to have a tradition of drinking maple sap. Whether the “good for bones” claims are true or not, it’s a delicious drink that I look forward to each spring.  I took about a Litre of it with me to my regular Monday evening basketball league this week.  We play for about 90 minutes, so I usually just drink water.  And I’m not going to lie that my energy levels are usually a bit lower towards the end of the night.  But this week, I was busting my ass down the court right until the end of the night.  I felt great, was grabbing more rebounds, felt lighter on my feet.  It could have been placebo…but then again maybe it was something in the water.

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.
- Dylan Thomas

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Move and Stick, and other reversals

Today I ‘discovered’ a new type of exercise.  New for me at least.  It’s hitting a heavy bag while walking uphill on a treadmill.  What kind of newfangled bullshit is this you ask?  Let me explain.  I have head cold and I was home today getting some rest.  I thought that maybe getting a bit of cardio in would help clear my head, but I didn’t want to leave the house or do anything too strenuous – just enough to sweat a bit and help get my body temp up in an attempt to nip the cold in the bud.  So I loaded up a Joe Rogan Experience podcast, hopped on the treadmill and set the controls for a brisk uphill walk.  At about 10 minutes in, my phone froze and, because it was over on the charger I didn’t want to stop and go fix whatever was wrong, so I just left it.  Not feeling all that great, I didn’t figure I’d last all that long anyway.  But once I got about 20 minutes in, the boredom set in a bit...that is until I caught a glimpse of my heavy bag hanging within arm’s reach.

Suffice it to say everything in my gym is pretty much within arm’s reach.  My current set-up shares space with the laundry room, furnace and workshop, so space is at a premium.  I do have other random implements in the garage and outdoors, but my main ‘gym’ is downstairs, consisting of a homemade squat cage, treadmill and heavy bag.  You can see in the pic below that it’s fairly tight quarters.  I don’t mind – I kinda like it that way, as I wrote in a previous post.  And yes, that black ABS pipe running down the wall in front of my squat rack is indeed the drain pipe for the toilets upstairs.  It helps when you’re struggling at the bottom position of a set of heavy squats to be reminded that instead of this you could be literally crawling through shit, Shawshank style, rather than just feeling that way!

Today the cramped quarters were particularly advantageous.  Just as boredom was setting in on the treadmill, I took a few random jabs at the heavy bag, soon realizing that it was a cool sensation.  Usually, when I do rounds on the bag, I’m working from a stable position of power.  I move the other equipment out of the way and can really unload with punches, knees and kicks from the strong foundation of being on the ground.  This was different in the sense that I was walking on the treadmill at a quick pace, trying to throw punches while off balance.  Right jabs were easy enough but hard to generate much power at first.  Left crosses, across the body were even trickier.  This struck me as useful.  How often, in an actual fight, are you swinging from a stable position?  More likely you’re off balance, backing up perhaps.  Of course, ideally you train for this type of situation by sparring with actual opponents who are firing back and trying to knock you off your game.  However, from a solo training perspective, this type of off-balance punching seems to be a worthwhile compliment to the more traditional heavy bag work.  After all, knockouts aren’t always produced when the striker is in a stable attacking position, as evidenced by the infamous Anderson Silva KO of Forrest Griffin.

So, speaking of backing the fuck up, why on earth am I doing long, slow, boring cardio on the treadmill in the first place?  I virtually never do slow, steady-state cardio.  I much prefer getting it in through playing basketball, running sprints, flipping tires, etc.  The trend in the fitness ‘industry’ over the past decade or so I would say, largely influenced by CrossFit and so called functional fitness, has been toward HIIT-style cardio, intervals and the like.  Works for me!  That kind of stuff is way more fun than hopping on an elliptical machine for an hour and sweating to the oldies.  But I remember back in the 90s (holy shit I’m old!) and early 2000s, the holy grail of fat loss was always long, slow cardio.  All self respecting bodybuilders did that shit, preferably in the AM on an empty stomach (or post weight training).  I remember being constantly told in muscle magazines to do lengthy cardio in the 60-70% max heart rate zone to oxidize fat.  Keep it moderate, as anything more strenuous would shift the metabolism over to burning carbs/glycogen. 

What’s funny is that, back then, I virtually never followed that advice.  I just could never persuade myself to devote that much time to long, boring cardio.  So, aside from sporadic attempts, I never did.  But perhaps my physique suffered for that stubbornness.  When the trend in the mid-2000s seemed to switch over to high-intensity, interval-style cardio, I jumped on that bandwagon whole-hog....because that’s what I’d been doing all along anyway - talk about the easy route!  You know the story...someone throws up a picture of a world class sprinter and marathoner side by side with the caption, “Which one would you rather look like?” The mesomorphic Greek god or the emaciated Kenyan?  Of course, everyone chooses the sprinter, so the implication is to train like a sprinter...lots of speed, intervals, high-intensity stuff.  Long slow cardio just wrecks your hormones and makes you, well...slow.

There’s probably some truth in all of that.  No one is going to get fast and athletic from doing slow cardio for 60 minutes each morning on an elliptical.  Fast and athletic comes from doing fast and athletic stuff (as well as good genetics).  But what about body composition?  That’s where I’m not so sure.  I’m not entirely convinced that high-intensity, interval-based sprint training is the best recipe for body recomposition.  Or at least, maybe not in isolation.

So, not at the expense of, but rather as an addendum to the fun, high-intensity stuff, I’m going to give slow, monotonous cardio a solid try.  I’d say an old fashioned college try, except for the fact that, as I said, when I was actually in college I never gave it the time of day (despite it being de rigeur back then).  So far it’s been four sessions of AM cardio, on the treadmill – between 45 and 60 minutes each, and with HR around 65% or so (easy peasy lemon squeezy, as my 3-year-old would say).  We’ll see how it goes.  Despite the fact that there’s still a mountain of snow on the ground here, I’m motivated by the vanity of summer (even if far-off still) and trying to drop a bit of bodyfat before the season when it becomes more socially acceptable to walk around with your shirt off.  The impetus for trying this came from two sources.  Firstly, following Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson on Twitter in preparation for his Hercules role, it seemed he was doing a lot of steady-state morning cardio.  Lots of tweets about lengthy 5:00am elliptical sessions (or course in addition to gruelling strength training).  Dude has always been huge of course but he looks absolutely shredded for that role.  The other inspiration is that I’ve been reading Joe Manganiello’s Evolution book.  It’s a pretty solid and sensible read, but one of the quotes that particularly stuck with me was:

“I don’t care how much you hate cardio or think that weights and diet alone will do the job.  They won’t.”

He talks quite a bit about formerly hating long, boring cardio, but that finally buckling down and adding it in made a huge difference in his physique.  Joe’s attitude is basically that you may hate it at first but nevertheless just suck it up and get it done.  That resonates.  One of his recommendations is to set the treadmill to a 12 degree incline and do a brisk 3.5mph walk for about 30-45 minutes.  I love to walk so that works for me.  Sure it’s boring at first.  But it’s a good opportunity to listen to podcasts, audiobooks or whatever you like...or just zone out with your thoughts.  Moving meditation.  It’s actually kind of enjoyable.

It’s led me to reassess the whole concept of boredom.  I’ve always hated the idea of boredom.  It annoys me when people say they’re bored.  I mean, the world’s a fascinating place, there’s so much to see and the hell can you say you’re bored?  Read a new book, paint something, learn a new skill on Youtube...whatever!  We’re so programmed to be constantly stimulated nowadays.  It’s a constant digital amusement park out there.  I think we’ve been cultured to expect that we don’t deserve to ever be bored.  What an insult to think that I should ever have to hunker down and do something that’s menial and unstimulating.

The thing is, life is often menial and unstimulating.  Probably always has been and probably always will be.  Until very recently, people seemed okay with that, or at least didn’t really question the concept.  Sure, it’s not good if things are always boring...nobody wants that.  But I think the whole idea that we’re somehow entitled to be constantly entertained, constantly stimulated, is a relatively new idea.  It seems kind of part and parcel to the whole ‘me generation’ mentality.  People assume that they should be perennially entertained by their career, their relationships, their surroundings.  If you were to ask someone in the 1930s if they felt stimulated in their job, they probably would have looked at you like you had three fucking heads.  It wasn’t even a question – you just go to work and do your job.  I suspect that this is also quite a foreign concept in any kind of traditional/indigenous cultures that still exist (and would be a good proxy for the bulk of human history).  Think of subsistence hunting.  Most of that shit is incredibly dull.  Trust me, I’m a hunter.  Most of hunting is sitting still and trying to be very quiet.  It’s dull – not unenjoyable, but dull.  It’s punctuated by moments of extreme excitement or course, but those are the exception, not the rule.  I don’t have to spend hours on end digging up tubers with a stick, tanning animal hides or braiding rope but I imagine those get a bit dull too.  But no one in those cultures sat around wondering if they felt fulfilled or self actualized.  You just picked up your stick and dug.

This concept of boredom is at the heart of David Foster Wallace’s unfinished masterpiece, The Pale King, which I’ve been reading lately.  The book fictionalizes, among many other things, a group of IRS employees and their menial tasks, and contains passages such as this:

“I learned that the world of men as it exists today is a bureaucracy. This is an obvious truth, of course, though it is also one the ignorance of which causes great suffering.
But moreover, I discovered, in the only way that a man ever really learns anything important, the real skill that is required to succeed in a bureaucracy. I mean really succeed: do good, make a difference, serve. I discovered the key. This key is not efficiency, or probity, or insight, or wisdom. It is not political cunning, interpersonal skills, raw IQ, loyalty, vision, or any of the qualities that the bureaucratic world calls virtues, and tests for. The key is a certain capacity that underlies all these qualities, rather the way that an ability to breathe and pump blood underlies all thought and action.
The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air.
The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable.
It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”

I like that whole idea of becoming ‘unborable’.  It seems to me to have something to do with realizing that we are not our external environment, no matter how sterile or mundane.  But it’s not avoidance either, or retreat into some sort of internalized ‘happy place’.  It’s somehow the sense that our humanity becomes most evident when juxtaposed with the most torturously robotic and inhumane of contexts.  To talk about it is to trip over words, at least for me.

Elsewhere in the novel, DFW writes: “Like so many other nerdy, disaffected young people of that time, I dreamed of becoming an 'artist', i.e., somebody whose adult job was original and creative instead of tedious and dronelike.”  This is of course what every unique little snowflake these days is raised to believe.  I can’t deny that at times, especially when I was younger, I’ve felt pangs like this too...the idea that I’m somehow above all the menial and monotonous chaff of everyday existence.  Which of course is bullshit.

I’ve repeated the DT Suzuki quoke here before: “Nirvana is to be sought in the midst of Samsara.”  Or perhaps more tangibly it’s expressed in the proverb, “Zen is not about thinking of spiritual matters while peeling the potatoes, Zen is simply to peel the potatoes.”  That is, real enlightenment or liberation is to be found in the most mundane of things.  Something to keep in mind the next time you’re copying formulae in an Excel spreadsheet, or plodding away on the treadmill.  I know I will.

Friday, 7 March 2014

On Free Will, Obesity and Nutting the F@#& Up

Be forewarned, this is a rant.

I was listening to the radio the other day and they were speaking with a bariatric surgery doctor of some sort (unfortunately affiliated with one of my alma maters) about some recently published statistics that show, to no great surprise, that people are getting fatter and fatter.

This doesn’t even seem to register as overly troubling anymore.  This guy’s response, as a supposed expert, was that it’s a real surprise that not everyone in our society is obese.  Basically, he argued that our society is set up in such a way, specifically with respect to the 24-7 availability of food and our reliance on computers (i.e. sedentary work and lifestyle), that predisposes people to be obese. His lacklustre advice was essentially (despite the outright error of avoiding ‘fatty’ foods) keep taking your drugs and statins, keep getting your stomachs stapled so you can’t physically cram any more food into them, and just basically accept that ‘society’ is going to make us more and more obese and we better just hunker down and fight the long defeat.

Well, I’m calling bullshit on that.  That argument fails for precisely the reason that there’s still a sizeable (ironic word choice) portion of the population who aren’t fat and never will be.  Those are the people that have learned and developed a sense of free will and responsibility with respect to taking care of themselves and their bodies.  They’ve learned the capacity, as all functional adults should have, to delay gratification.  They’ve realized that despite the absolute ubiquity of shitty fast food and temptations everywhere, that no one is holding a gun to your head and telling you to eat that donut.  No one is holding you down and forcing you to waste hours playing Candy Crush on your phone or watching reality TV.  So if ‘society’ is to blame, why aren’t all those other people fat too?  Well, it’s because society isn’t the culprit.

Here’s the harsh truth.  If you’re fat, it’s your fault.  Unless you’re a kid – then it’s your parents’ fault (and I think there’s a special spot in hell reserved for parents who let their kids get obese…it’s tantamount to abuse).  But if you’re an adult human, it’s your fault.  I’m sorry if that sounds mean, but it’s the truth.  That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.  Hell, you might be the nicest person in the world.  But being a fatty is your own doing, and you’re also the only solution to your problem.  It’s not your friends, your family, your upbringing, your ‘genes’, or ‘society’ (whatever the hell that means) – it’s you. And it’s time to nut the fuck up!

CT Fletcher says it best in relation to training and weightlifting.  At the end of the day, you can complain all you want about your various excuses and limitations, but all that matters is that you get into the gym and do the work.  IT’S STILL YO MUTHAFUCKIN’ SET!  How refreshing would it be if we all carried that attitude over into all aspects of life?  Fast food restaurants beckoning you on your way home?  IT’S STILL YO MUTHAFUCKIN’ DINNER! Go home, take 5 minutes and cook some eggs instead.  Sedentary job? IT’S STILL YO MUTHAFUCKIN’ JOB!  Get out on your lunchbreak and go for a walk and do some pushups.  Do squats while you’re on the phone.  Whatever works.  Too busy in the evenings to exercise?  IT’S STILL YO MUTHAFUCKIN’ FAMILY!  Do chin-ups at the park while watching your kids play...or better yet play with them, play tag, run around.  Get off your ass.

The way I see it, this whole victim mentality, this passivity, is the root of the whole problem.  I’ve read studies that show a person’s satisfaction and happiness at work are directly related to the degree of control that they feel they have.   I would extrapolate that out to life more broadly.  If you feel like you are in control of your life to some extent, not in the sense of barking out orders and being controlling, but simply in having the feeling that you are influencing the outcomes of your own life by the choices and decisions you make, I would wager that you feel a sense of contentedness.  Conversely, I think most people who consider themselves pawns on some cosmic chessboard, or slaves to other people or agents in their own lives, probably don’t feel very happy or content.  And while I’ve never experienced it personally, I’ve heard that one of the main reasons that people overeat is that they’re trying to exert some control in one area of their lives to make up for powerlessness elsewhere.  For this perspective, the whole victim mentality becomes a pretty vicious cycle:  Eat to feel in control – Get fatter – Blame external circumstances for your weight problem – feel more passive and powerless – Eat some more….

The corollary of this is that in some places, being super fat is now considered a disease!  To me, that’s the ultimate in passivity – throwing our hands up in the air and treating it like some kind of plague foisted upon us from afar, rather than accepting responsibility that it’s a condition wholly within our control.  Smallpox is a disease.  Polio is a disease.  Sitting on your ass too much and shovelling garbage into your mouth is not a disease, it’s a choice.  Furthermore, the health care costs of this choice are astronomical, with some recent studies estimating it at one fifth of all heath expenses in the U.S.!  Now I’m no libertarian – I’m proud that in Canada we have a health care system that attempts to take care of everyone.  If you get hurt or get cancer or some other actual disease, I want my tax money paying for treatment.  In many ways, a society should be judged by how it treats its weakest members.  But when people refuse to make simple choices that would avoid those costs from the outset, the whole thing becomes unfair and unsustainable.

The whole thing comes back to free will.  No matter your epistemological leanings, we either evolved as sentient hominids out of our more instinctual ‘animal’ pasts, or we were granted the ability by [Insert  deity of your choice here] to make up our own minds on how we behave.  Even some of the more deterministic Eastern traditions would allow that, within a broader context of fatalism, we have the power to choose how we behave and react to discrete events.  Maybe I’m destined to get hit by a bus in two days.  Who knows?  But in the interim, it’s a precious gift that I get to exercise my own free will in how I conduct myself.

You see this lack of personal accountability everywhere.  I keep hearing a commercial on the radio for some sort of credit management firm.  The gist of the commercials is that a big mean collection agency has been leaving messages for someone who hasn’t paid their bills.  The person is screening calls and then suddenly picks up the phone and says, in the most dismissive and sycophantic tone, “Hi, Mr. So and So, I’ve called BDO.” And hangs up.  Problem solved!  The whole implication is, how dare this collection agency keep hassling me about my unpaid debts.  What nerve!  No sense of embarrassment or remorse that I’ve borrowed money that I can’t pay back.  No sense of culpability.  I’m the victim here!  And now I’m passing the buck to someone else who’ll clean up my mess.  Calgon, take me away!

Again it all comes back to ability to exercise free will, take responsibility for one’s actions and their consequences, and to delay gratification when necessary.  It’s really all the same concept.  Deciding that hey, I really want a new pair of shoes but you know what, I can’t fucking afford them right now, so I’ll wait until I can.  Or thinking, wow I’m really hungry right now, but instead of stopping at Tim Hortons I’ll wait the 10 extra minutes and go home and actually make myself a decent meal using actual food.  Or thinking, I’m tired and I don’t feel like going out into the cold for a run, but I know how fantastic I’m gonna feel afterwards so suck it up buttercup!  And I’m convinced that free will responds just like a muscle, in the sense that it grows stronger with frequent exercise and it atrophies from disuse.  You start taking responsibility for your actions and start making the harder choices, and suddenly the ‘harder’ choices don’t seem as difficult anymore.  They become the default.  But that can’t happen as long as we continue to deflect and externalize the real causes of our problems, without realizing that each of us holds the key to our own liberation.