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.

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