Friday, June 24, 2016

The Value of Coaching

Frank Shamrock has a system for training fighters in which he says they need three things:  a plus, a  minus, and an equal.  That is, in order to become great, a fighter needs someone better than them to learn from, someone lesser they can teach, and someone equal to challenge themselves against.  I found this in a book I'm reading right now, and I can't stop thinking about.  Because it's awesome, and it's completely true.

I used to only go looking for wisdom and knowledge from people that have similar interests as mine, or at least interests that appear similar on the surface.  Weightlifters, CrossFitters, etc.  This is a mistake.  Sure, the idea above comes from a decorated MMA fighter, a pastime that I will likely never participate in at any point for the rest of my life1.  But we can always pull some great ideas from other disciplines.  Fighting in particular seems to contribute a lot of formidable ideas about training, preparation, and mindset.  Perhaps this is because the stakes are so high:  for most of us, a mistake in training leads - at worst - to some hurt feelings, damaged pride, or maybe a strained muscle.  For a fighter, a mistake might lead to losing an eyeball, internal bleeding, or eating through a straw for the rest of their life.  This is great motivation to get their poop in a group it seems.

"False ideas about yourself destroy you." 

But I think the value of having a coach or being coached isn't necessarily all about gaining new knowledge from an outside source, or even from someone that knows more than we do (although these things are certainly helpful).  It's not about picking up this one amazing tip that will make us a champion next week or put 5 pounds on our back squat right this moment.  It's more about staying humble, and realizing that we don't know everything.  And there is always someone out there that knows of something different, or - gasp! - better than what we may be doing.

Staying a perpetual student keeps us humble and keeps our ego in check.  It seems we are constantly warned to stay away from overly negative people that drag us down, and for good reason:  these people suck.  But they are easy to spot, and even easier to eliminate.  Often times it's as simple as unfriending them on Facebook, or throwing them out of a moving vehicle.

But we rarely get warned to stay away from the opposite, which would be those that think we're just a little too awesome and constantly stroke our ego.  If you ask me, this shit is even more dangerous than somebody who is bringing us down.  This is how we end up with a mullet ... in 2016.  If we constantly surround ourselves with people that have nothing but good, positive things to say about us, is it so hard to imagine ending up with a haircut that went out of style decades ago?  Or something worse, like maybe a jackass personality?

Okay perhaps that was a bad example, because as it turns out the modern mullet is actually quite super sweet and sexy.

This is the path to thinking we're good enough and we've come far enough.  There's a lot of this going on in social media and elsewhere these days, and I think it's getting just a little overblown.  Yeah, we should learn to love ourselves and be happy with our bodies and who we are and all that shit.  There is definitely value there, especially if we're really truly happy with where we sit.  But often times this content - which if we call it what is really is we'd say something more like apathy - is just the beginning of moving backwards.  

Even if we do happen to be truly happy with where we are, we may forget that it took a lot of hard work to get to this place and it will continue to take hard work and diligence to maintain.  Constantly reminding ourselves how awesome we are - however we choose to make that happen - helps us forget these facts.  This is what happens when we decide to stop learning, and lose our "plus" to use Shamrock's terminology.  Being coached, acting as an infinite student and always seeking out new knowledge, humbling ourselves by attempting to learn from others, this all serves as an important reminder that we're not quite as great as we'd like to think we are.

This one hits home very hard for me personally.  In regards to training and nutrition, I went a couple long years without a plus; and I certainly suffered because of it.  I can see this perfectly in hindsight now, and it makes so much sense.  Harder to see in the moment, when all I was focused on was being the plus, content in my own excellence.  Without a coach and without a learning mindset, the ego runs around unchecked.  And this is a very dangerous place to be, a place where progress goes to die.

One would think I'd have learned by now to never say never.  Let's just say that in the foreseeable future, I have no desire for cauliflower ear and getting kicked repeatedly in the face.

2 Yes, I realize after reviewing and proofing this post that I exclusively included pics of attractive men.  Keep your comments to yourself. 

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Mindfulness and Starting Small

Sometimes when things get out of control or start to slip, it can be helpful to go back to something very basic and ground ourselves.  I think this is true for even the most seasoned veteran all the way to somebody who is just starting out.  The basics never get old and never go away, no matter how long you've been chasing something or how much of an expert you consider yourself.  For someone brand new, often times the most fatal mistake is taking on too much at once and skipping over the basics in favor of something more advanced.

Let me give you an example.  About 5 or 6 years ago, I decided I was going to take on my first sprint triathlon in the heat of a St. Louis July.  I love to revisit this story over and over again with people, for the simple reason that it was a complete disaster and therefore hilarious.  But it was also a good lesson in starting small and learning how to focus.  You see, back then I wasn't nearly as wise as I am now1.  And I had this silly belief that doing CrossFit somehow made me proficient at pretty much anything athletic, even without any prior knowledge or experience.  Now most reasonable people would laugh at that statement, but I was young and pretty stupid so hopefully you can empathize with the mindset a little bit.

When I think back to the months, weeks, and days approaching the event, I can remember pretty clearly what was on my mind:  how well I was going to do, how impressed everyone would be with me, what shirt I was going to wear, and how much alcohol I was going to drink afterwards.  Nowhere in that process did I consider maybe getting into a body of water to make sure I could at least swim well enough to not die.  I didn't think about hydration; turns out that performing endurance activities when it's hotter than Satan's butt-crack in late July may cause you to lose a little bit of fluids and electrolytes.  And if you want to know what happens to skeletal muscle after hours of hard work in the heat and very little water, I can tell you with the utmost certainty that it's not pleasant.  Let's see, what else did I forget .... Oh yeah!

Maybe it's important to make sure the bike has air in the tires.  Maybe?

Now the day did end up being a complete disaster, literally from start to finish, and my comeuppance was received.  Hard.  But I'm not going to bore you with all those details2, because that's not really the point.  The point is this:  I would have been much better off focused on just a few small, easy, very basic details (drink plenty of water, air your tires, don't die) rather than overly concerned about my performance, appearance, and other more advanced topics.  And as a result of that experience, I hung up the bike for good after that day and have never done another sprint triathlon since.  Does this story sound familiar?  I think we've all been there, or at least heard of someone who has.  We decide it's time to exercise, and we come blazing out of the gate with some advanced program and hurt ourselves.  Or we decide to clean up our diet and try to make 35 changes at once, only to fall flat on our face and back where we started ... or worse off.

Along these lines, I recently came across a nutrition program that is habit-based and focused on small, incremental changes.  The entire premise of the program is based on starting small and building momentum over time, as our experience allows.  I have become enthralled with it, simply because this is exactly something like I had envisioned creating myself one day.  There are 5 simple habits that they start every nutrition client out with, and I was really excited to learn about these, implement them myself, and pass them on to anybody that would listen.  You want to know what habit number one is?  Eat Slower.  I'll be honest, my first reaction to that habit was ....  "that's really stupid."  I was quite disappointed.  That is, of course, until I took a step back and really thought about it.

This habit is simply mindfulness.  It's thinking about the things we do - actually focusing - instead of just reacting and going through the motions.  It's about slowing down and focusing on simplicity, and it may be the most useful habit of all - with regard to anything that we do.  Of course, my mind immediately jumps to lifting weights.  Hopefully when we're at the gym, we're focused on what we're actually doing in the gym and not thinking about the thousand other things we need to do afterwards or later on, how much our job sucks, or how mad our spouse is at us.  Actually, that's kinda the point of going to the gym:  getting away from all that crap.  But let's take it a step further:  how often do we worry about how difficult the conditioning is going to be, when we haven't even made it through our squats yet?  Perhaps our mind wonders to how heavy that last set will be, when we are still getting warmed up.  Or maybe we start thinking about how agonizing that 7th or 8th rep of this final set is going to be (or that we might possibly fail), when we haven't even done the first rep.

Oh crap, hold up, did I leave the oven on?

Mindfulness is being present and focused in the moment.  This set.  This rep.  This meal.  This is what's happening to me right now, and everything else can be blocked out.  This inherently improves the quality of whatever we are doing; it has to.  The idea sounds easy in theory, but it is brutally difficult in practice.  Especially in this world in which we live where all of this technology and information and people are constantly competing for our attention, and everybody wants everything yesterday.  Mindfulness is a flow.  It's that feeling that the time has passed by incredibly quickly, because for a brief period we were so focused that the very concept of time actually ceased to exist for us.  This is the goal.

Turns out this may be one of the most basic - and therefore most effective - things that we can do when we're trying to move forward.  Just focus a little more.  Start small with something easy to handle and dial in on it.  Then move on incrementally from there.  And maybe attach a water bottle to that fancy new bike you just bought.

This is humor.  The only way in which I am truly wiser now than I was 5 years ago is simply in my ability to recognize that I am actually not a whole lot wiser than I was 5 years ago.  Chew on that.

You can ask me in person if you really want to know the details, but suffice it to say I had to be helped off the course about 2 hours after my projected finish time, along with some 90-year-old guy that almost died too. 

Friday, May 20, 2016

If The Rule You Followed Led You To Man-Boobs

It is said that if you walk 10 miles into the woods, then you have to walk 10 miles to get back out.  This is probably useful advice in a literal sense for those of you that enjoy camping, hiking, trail running, or other sorts of nature expeditions.  I'm not one of those people;  mosquitoes love my delightful pale skin and no way in hell you'll ever get me to sleep in a hot tent.  But it can also be a useful thought for those of us that have dug ourselves into some sort of figurative hole at one point or another throughout life.  Because I think it's all too common for us to walk 50 miles into those woods, and then once we finally turn around we expect it will only be a quick jog to get back out.  And that is just simply not the case.

I feel like I've found myself at a bit of a landmark recently, and I want to share some of the story with you.  But not because it's finished; only because I feel I've finally emerged from those woods after about a year of hard work.  Of course, it took me well over a year to crawl my way in there in the first place, so I guess the punishment fit the crime.  I'm not doing this because I want to brag (although I do a little), but because I think it's a good example of something we will all likely have to do at some point in our lives.  Some of you may be in the woods right now and not even know it.  Some of you may have just turned around and still have a long journey back out ahead of you.  But I think there are a couple things I've learned along the way that might be helpful to just about anybody, no matter where you are or how much forestry you're surrounded by at the moment.

FYI, sometimes you meet a creepy-ass deer up in those woods.  Bring a rifle.

So let's flashback a few years, right around the time we opened BARx.  I made some pretty serious changes to my training and diet around that time, all with good intentions of course.  Isn't there some saying about the path to hell that might be appropriate here?  Anyway, the details aren't incredibly important (they are but I don't have time to dive into them) so let's just leave it at this:  I diverted.  I took a fork in the road that in hindsight wasn't the best choice.  I gave up a bunch of stuff I never should have (deadlifts, cardio), started eating way too much (to "build muscle"), and started chasing a bunch of crap that I never really wanted that badly in the first place (being a good "weightlifter").

It's important to note that this didn't happen overnight.  It never does, right?  I didn't wake up one day and decide that I wanted to stop getting my heart-rate up, grow some juicy man-boobs, and pile up a bunch of injury and frustration.  It was a slow burn, one small thing after another, a gradual process so subtle that I hardly noticed it taking place around me.  It always is.  Until one day we finally wake up and start to wonder how we got so deep into these woods, why it's so dark, and why is there a squirrel gnawing on my foot?

Of course the awakening isn't always a distinct smack in the face either.  Mine happened in two separate phases.  The first was nutrition, and to be honest I'm not sure exactly what triggered it.  Maybe it was the fact that I had been diligently tracking my food intake for nearly a year and basically saw zero results from it, in the gym or in the mirror.  Or maybe it was the fact that I owned a f***ing gym and I was still too embarrassed to take my shirt off on my own honeymoon.  I was a fat guy who owned a gym, a failure, a hypocrite, and to top it all off I can't even fully enjoy some sweet pool time in the sun.  What has become of me?

The honeymoon was the first time I toyed around with reaching out for help when I saw some nutrition coaching was available on the Catalyst website.  This is important.  It's also important to note that I didn't do anything about it until nearly 3 months later.  This is how the mind works, I guess.  Or at least how mine does ... slowly.  But for the first time I was becoming comfortable with the very ideas that would eventually pull me out of the woods:  I didn't know everything, I couldn't go it alone, and I needed help.  It was almost a bit of a relief, like I could finally stop carrying around this burden all on my own.  Can't I farm some of this pressure out to someone else for crap's sake?

The training and programming epiphany however, I remember like it was yesterday.  I had finally worked myself back up to snatching 200 pounds, and everything was seeming to fall back into place after a year or so of misery and no progress (because I'd been healthy for like 6 weeks).  And then one Saturday I nearly ripped my own neck and shoulder off trying to snatch 205.  It scared the crap out of me, and really pissed me off.  But mostly it just depressed me.  I went home that day and all I wanted to do was sit on the couch and sulk (this is incredibly unlike me, by the way).  I just wanted to drown in my misery and failure and lament how I will never hit another PR again and so I need to find a way to make peace with it.  I sat on the couch, drank vodka, and contemplated focusing on my career or maybe really getting into Fantasy Football.  Or ...

At the time I had been working with my nutrition coach for about 6 weeks, and I'd already lost around 7 pounds and was feeling pretty good about it.  So in short, it was working.  And then I thought:  why not programming and strength coaching too?  I mean, it's working for nutrition so why not something else?  So lying there on the couch - half-drunk and trying not to move my sore neck too abruptly - I emailed some dude named Zach I'd been following on the Internet for a few months and asked him how much it would cost for some coaching.  I didn't care, I was going to do it regardless.  Even if it's just for a month to see what I could learn.

As an aside, if your hobbies start leading you to this point it might also be a good idea to stop taking yourself so seriously.  But that's a post for another day.

And the rest - as they say - is history.  Not to gloss over all the gory details or belittle all the help I've had along the way1, but it's pretty boring.  We crawl out the same way we crawl in:  slowly and agonizingly.  It was a lot of grinding.  It was a lot of 5 pound PRs in lifts I'd never bothered to do before, and a lot of coming back and hitting old numbers I never thought I'd see again.  But most importantly, it was also a lot of letting go.  This was the hardest thing for me, but I had to find a way to stop believing so firmly in certain things, and I had to relinquish some control.  Sounds counter-intuitive, right?  But it is certainly the most powerful lesson I've learned so far.  I realized that over the years I had cultivated so many beliefs about training and diet, things that I held as Truth (capitalized on purpose) and would never deviate from - all without even realizing it.  All of these things have been let go of, or at the very least relaxed in some way - and it's done nothing but good for me.  This is important.  This is probably the underlying driver of all of my success over the last year:  I had to stop thinking that I knew so much.  I had to stop believing in things so blindly.  I had to let go a little bit.

 I like to preach the importance of rules, of structure, and consistency.  But what if the rules we follow bring us to man-boobs? What if the rules we follow slowly lead us deep into the woods?  Well then maybe it's time to let them go, or we may never get out.  This is something very hard to overcome.  We all want to believe deeply that our underlying faith and assumptions are what keep us moving forward.  But what if those are the very things holding us back?

It would be a bit of dick move if I were to finish this post and fail to mention Zach from Strength Ratio and Francesco from Working Against Gravity.  Thank you both for your guidance.  But your work is only just beginning. 

"If you the rule you followed" is an obscure line borrowed from one of the greatest movies of all time No Country For Old Men, to which I also owe a debt of gratitude for teaching me that someday we all gonna die. 

Friday, May 13, 2016

Just Stay In The Lines

Wouldn't it be amazing if we could just flip a switch and create a new habit?  If we were able to wake up one day and completely give up a vice - such as drinking or smoking or eating junk food - at the snap of a finger.  And we could do so successfully, without ever looking back.  We might be tempted to think that this is a rare occurrence and that most people are incapable of such rapid and successful change.  But I would very much disagree.  

Over the past few months I've watched a member of my household make some incredible changes to her lifestyle:  she has stopped drinking, she gave up caffeine, she started watching her food intake more closely, and increased her consumption of vitamins and minerals, just to name a few.  This is pretty incredible if you sit down and think about it for a moment, because she did all of this within the course of a few days and without complaint or ever reverting back to old habits.  Amazing.  How is this even possible?  I mean, yeah she's totally knocked up, but I don't think that's the whole story here.

There have been times in my life - as I'm certain there are in everyone's life - where rapid and uncompromising changes are required.  Let me give you another powerful example, something that may seem simple but really struck me as inspirational.  I have a co-worker that I see almost every day, and over the course of the last several months I started to notice that he's been dropping a significant amount of weight.  One day I decided to congratulate him and ask him about what we was up to.  Miraculously, he was doing the same thing that every other human that's ever successfully lost weight does:  exercising more and controlling his diet.  But that really has nothing to do with this story.  This is about WHY he did it.  

You see, apparently there is a certain event in the cub scouts (a hike) that he wants to participate in with his oldest son.  And the scouts have a rule that everyone who goes on this hike must meet certain weight requirements relative to their height.   So he's left with two options:  one is to lose some weight and come in under the threshold to go on this trip with his boy.  The other is to not do that (fail), and miss out on something extremely important to him that he will likely regret for a very long time.  So to put it another way, there is no option.  And this is what I see as a very important lesson:  we are all capable of amazing things when we simply rid ourselves of any other option besides success.

But how?  How does the pregnant lady give up all her vices in the blink of an eye, and how does a man drop a great portion of his body weight over the course of half a year for a single weekend trip?  And what do these two seemingly unrelated situations have in common?  The answer is rules.  There are rules around pregnancy.  The options have been reduced to one:  no drinking alcohol.  There are rules around who can go on this trip:  lose weight or you're out.  There is no guessing, no pandering, no wavering, no opportunity to think it over and make a choice.  The one and only option is success, and that is so because there are rules in place and they cannot be broken.

Slap a little bit of paint on some concrete and suddenly everybody drives in a straight line.  Miraculous.

I hope your mind is exploding with possibility right now, because mine has been.  I believe Strong people create rules for themselves.  It is said that habits are the true key to success in any long-term endeavor.  But rules are the mother of each and every habit.  Let's think about this in even more practical terms.  Fed up with dealing with a sink full of dishes, mom implements a new rule around the house:  no more dishes in the sink.  Everything goes straight into the dishwasher.  And if you're caught putting one in there, there's going to be hell to pay.  Suddenly everyone in the house has developed a new "habit" overnight of rinsing their dishes and putting them straight in the dishwasher.  Incredible.

Here's another one from my own personal life.  After a particularly brutal dentist appointment one day with a less-than-sympathetic dental hygienist, I came home one afternoon and told my wife that I was going to start flossing once per day without fail, effective immediately.  That was nearly two years ago, and since that day I've flossed my teeth every evening before bed without exception.  I've also sat back and marveled at my own ability to create this new habit out of thin air.  Snap, just like that.  But now I see the reality:  I didn't create a habit at all.  I created a rule.  A rule that I do not go to bed without flossing my teeth.  Period.  The habit simply followed as an inevitable and unavoidable consequence.  There is no negotiation, no forgiveness, no wiggle room, and most importantly no opportunity for failure.  I simply do not lay down in bed unless I've flossed my teeth.  How easy is that?

So now we've started a new diet.  We are rocking and rolling, and the first few days are easy.  Then we go out to dinner with some co-workers.  Everyone is eating high-calorie pizza, and they're asking us to do it too.  I mean, who wants to be the one weirdo ordering a salad with chicken breast?  The temptation is there, the pressure is there, and it's so easy to cave.  So easy to make up some excuse or reason in our mind to justify failing right there in the moment.  And so we do.  Over and over again, in a vicious cycle that always results in us telling ourselves something like "next time" or "never again."  A.K.A, regret.

Now imagine the same situation, but it's a pregnant woman at a happy hour and she's asked if she wants a drink.  Same suggestive pressure, same temptation.  But without batting an eye, she easily refuses.  And with good reason:  There is a rule in place that she cannot drink while she's pregnant.  And everything else is just white noise.  The conversation is over, and she has stuck to her guns and walks away successful.  As if there was ever even a question in the first place (that's the point).

So now what if we go back to the first situation, but this time the individual has a personal rule in place:  something along the lines of "I eat less than 60 grams of fat per day1."  Now we have a powerful and decisive framework in which to make decisions, and it really just comes down to simple math.  That pizza will break my rule, therefore I will not eat it.  And there is nothing anybody can say or do to change that, including myself.  It's a rule.  It's not an option.  It's not up for negotiation.

This can be used for pretty much anything.  Say we've decided to run a marathon, but we had to work late and in order to get a run in today we'll have to skip our favorite TV show.  Tough choice here.  But luckily we put a rule in place, something like "Run at least 3 miles every day."  And unfortunately we have no rule in place to govern how much time we spend sitting around on our ass and watching reruns of chick-flicks, so now this "decision" becomes easily made for us.  All we have to do is follow the rules.

The problem here is that we may view some rules as more valid than others.  Certainly the health of a baby is more important than ... our own health?  Certainly losing weight for your son is more important than ... losing weight just because you want to feel better?  I don't think this is true.  And we can harness this framework that already exists in our minds to do whatever the hell it is that we set out to do.  Lose weight, get to the gym, start a business, write a book, whatever.  Rules.  We have the power to create them, and we have the power to decide how valid they are.  Now let's go floss our teeth.

How the rules are worded is important:  they can't be put in uncertain terms.  Something like "This year I'll try not to murder anyone" or "At least make a good attempt at paying your taxes" would be unacceptable. 

Friday, May 6, 2016

Joy Riding

Years ago in college, I took a road trip down to Springfield, MO to visit some friends on mine.  It was Halloween and the day after the Cardinals had won a World Series, so my roommate and I left bright and early on Saturday morning after partying it up the night before.  When we arrived and knocked on our buddy's apartment door, nobody answered.  Here we are after a 3-hour drive to get down there, and nobody is answering their damn phones or the damn door.  A half-hour or so goes by, and then we finally find the people we're looking for when a car pulls up in front of the apartment complex and they all pile out.  Turns out, after watching the series-clinching game the night before, they decided to find a sober driver from their fraternity to drive them around all night while they drank a 30-pack of Milwaukee's Best.  When we asked them where they went, they had no idea.  They just drove out for about 4 hours, got wasted, then turned around and came back.  Morons.

I woke up the other day and had an amazing epiphany.  One of those moments where you can see the world with complete clarity and everything just feels right.  My eyes opened after a restful nights sleep and something hit me:  I am really excited to get out of bed.  But not for any particularly special reason, really just for the hell of it.  Every morning around 5 AM I walk into the kitchen and get some coffee going.  I also turn on the electronic food scale and measure out one full serving of strawberries, 20-21 grams of whey protein (roughly half a serving but rounded up just slightly because that's how I freaking roll), and exactly 30 grams of peanut butter powder.  All of this combined with just the right amount of water to make a smoothie of the exact and precise consistency that I enjoy.  I do this every single morning, but not out of some sense of obligation or forced self-imposed regulation, or because I think it's going to get me somewhere someday, or so I have something to write about on the blog, or even because I particularly enjoy the taste.  No, I realized that I do it because I simply love doing it.  I love the precision, the routine, the consistency.  Perhaps it's a bit sick and twisted, but it somehow makes me incredibly happy on a level that I can't even fully describe.

I'll even let you in on a little personal secret of mine:  some days - but not every day - I add exactly 70 grams of frozen blueberries to zest things up a little bit.

I think this is what might be referred to as falling in love with the process.  And it was a beautiful moment.  Not that I had finally embraced the process in that exact moment - that probably happened slowly over the course of the last 16 years or so - but the fact that I finally realized it.  You see I get a lot of strange comments and looks from people when I tell them about my insanely strict diet, or the fact that I will forego hockey tickets to go to the gym after work, or the fact that I'm trying to log 7,500+ steps consistently through each day.  I'm pretty sure I'm being pitied.  They look at me and think how sad it must be, that I force myself through sheer will and determination to do these things that nobody could possibly enjoy each and every day.  To live in this cloud of agonizing pressure that I've created for myself, to stay disciplined and to never stray.  How miserable a life this must be.

And for what?  A few pounds on a back squat that nobody will ever see?  A couple seconds faster on the rower or a 5k run?  Another quarter-ounce of fat off my waistline?  These all seem like such silly goals to be chasing, moments of fleeting and ultimately pointless accomplishment and happiness that required such long bouts of suffering and agony to achieve.  All of which will likely be erased at some point - as so many people are quick to point out - by things like my career or having children (because I'm just like everybody else, you know).  It's easy to see how an outsider looking in might view this as a disease, a mental deficiency of sorts.  And they take pity, because somewhere along the line I forgot how to enjoy the finer things in life - and that's just sad to them.

Fortunately, all of this couldn't be further from the truth.  I'd imagine the feeling of happiness that I had sitting there at 5:15 that morning, drinking my perfectly executed smoothie of 4 grams of fat, 23 grams of protein, and 22 grams of carbs is the exact same feeling that a more "normal" person might get from shoving their face full of nachos and beer and farting themselves to sleep.  In the same vein, I bet the feeling of satisfaction that I get from a long, hard workout is right on par with the feeling of accomplishment most "regular" people achieve from a 16-hour day at a job they hate and an hour of yelling at their wife.  I guess I just choose to get my happiness through a slightly different avenue.  It's strange, I know.

I might argue that my avenue results in a bit less regret the next day, but that's not really for me to decide.

Something else a lot of people say is that goals are important, that we should all have something to strive towards that will keep us motivated.  We're not in college anymore, and if you're going to get in the car and burn fuel, you damn well better have an idea where you're headed.  But what if - just for a second - we entertain the idea that this is all complete bullshit?  What if the goal and the destination are just a facade, simply the lies we tell ourselves to get us moving and get us into the car.  The real point is that somewhere along the line, we stop caring about the goal and start caring much more about the act of just going.  

I get asked this question a lot by others though:  what's your goal right now?  They need to believe that I'm chasing something, that I'm suffering for something - because there's no way that I'll be happy with all this misery until I get that something and can finally relax.  And believe me when I say that I've thought long and hard on this, and here's the best I can come up with:  better.  I just want to be a little better.  I know, it's so vague and nondescript that it basically means nothing.  And that's the point.  Because the goal really means nothing.  And the reality of goals is that they are temporary and fleeting, either because we'll eventually give up on them or - better yet - one day we will accomplish them.  But at that point we need to find a way to keep driving, even when there's no destination.  And we can only do this if we eventually toss aside all this concern over heading somewhere specific, and just start to enjoy the ride.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Tim's Official Back Pain Prevention Guide - 1st Edition

It may surprise you to hear this, but over the years I have suffered more back injuries and dealt with more chronic back pain than I would even care to admit.  Well - knock on steel - according to my insurance records I haven't been to the chiropractor in over 16 months now, and I'm pretty sure my last visit was for minor shoulder and elbow issues.  Now I don't believe for a second that I'm going to "jinx" myself by saying that or talking about it, because we make our own luck in this world.  And also even if I get hurt tomorrow, I still had a pretty long run (for me at least) without any issues ... and for that I am extremely grateful.

As you know, I'm not a medical doctor, a chiropractor, a massage therapist, or a myofascial release specialist1.  I'm just a guy who has jacked himself up many times over the years, and learned a few things along the way.  And now I get to share those things with you.  Some of the aforementioned experts may scoff at any or all of what I'm about to say, but I don't really care because these are the things that I believe in and they have worked for me.  And as we've discussed on many occasions before, it's not a lie if I believe it.

I've put this list together with intention and believe that everything on here has contributed positively in some way, but realistically all of this has likely combined together in a giant cloud of goodness to help keep me healthy as of late.  However, I did my best to order it from what I believe is the extreme absolute most important down to the only very important.  And I better get started or this article is going to be long as hell.

There's actually lots of other fun stuff in the Cloud of Goodness, but I'll save the rest for another day.

1) Walking

Wait, what?  Like that thing where we stand up and put one foot in front of the other to move our body from place to place?  Yes damn it!  It turns out that the most important thing I've done on my way to a healthy back is also one of the absolute easiest and simplest things for most human beings to do:  walk.  It's worth mentioning that while a lot of my bullets today may not be typical things you'll find in a book or on the Internet, this one is.  Every chiropractor or doctor worth their salt in this world will tell you that walking is far and away the best thing you can do for your back.  What's the technique, the protocol though?  It goes a little something like this:  get up off your ass and move.  20 minutes is better than 0 minutes, and 60 minutes is better than 20.

The reality is that most of us spend the vast majority of our time hunched over behind a desk.  Then we come into the gym and want to do 75 power cleans, and wonder why our back aches the next day.  The body was not made to sit around all day trading stocks and planning widget shipments, plain and simple.  Create some new habits, go for a long walk or a bunch or short ones, walk in place in your office during a conference call, do whatever the hell you have to do.  This is a big one.  The biggest.

They say sitting is the new smoking, because apparently we can't make enough money hooking people on cigarettes and then getting them to quit anymore, so now we're selling books and gadgets to help us not be so lazy.

2) Strength Balance

For about 2 years I stayed away from doing heavy deadlifts.  I believed that they were contributing to my back issues and destroying my health.  This was very wrong.  And if they were contributing to my issues in the past, it was simply because my deadlift was WAY stronger than my squat, causing strength imbalances in my lower body muscles and eventually back pain and injury.  This is one of those times where a few of you inquisitive types may ask the question of WHY having a healthy balance of strength between all muscle groups keeps us healthy and reduces chronic pain.  And I will give you the most honest physiological answer I can muster:  I have no f*%king idea.  It just works.

This is one of those situations in life where I prefer to apply a nice smooth creamy layer of common sense.  Our bodies tend to function as one unit, which is the whole idea behind functional movement and CrossFit in general.  If we get one area really super strong (let's say our quads through squatting) and let another area get relatively weak (let's say our hamstrings by neglecting deadlifts) doesn't it just make sense that this will cause some issues eventually?  Maybe not, in which case I'll just leave you to enjoy your sciatica for the rest of your life.

So what to do?  Once again, it's pretty simple:  make sure you are doing a wide variety of movements, and not skipping the stuff you suck at or don't like.  I can tell you through personal experience and through watching it happen many times, if we continue to neglect one movement in favor of an opposing one2 , the train is going to fall off the tracks eventually.  It's not a question of "if" but "when."

3) Tempo

I separated tempo from technique for a couple reasons.  One is that I've come to believe for the moment that tempo is ever so slightly more important than technique.  Two is that they are both very important and should be discussed separately.

So what is tempo, for those that may not know?  Tempo is simply the speed at which we execute a given movement.  To keep things simple, almost every movement we do has a down portion (eccentric) and an up portion (concentric).  Tempo is the speed at which you execute these individual segments of the movement.

Once again, the rule is simple:  keep the down portion of the movement intentionally slow and controlled, and execute the up portion as fast as you are safely able to.  This means during a squat, we lower ourselves into the bottom with control, then once we reverse and begin standing back up we should be striving to speed the bar up.  Every single day I see somebody dive-bombing into the bottom of the squat or quickly lowering a deadlift out of control.  Unfortunately this a great recipe for an acute injury, and the risk can be lowered significantly by simply maintaining better control of the bar during the down portion.

Full credit to my coach at Strength Ratio for teaching me the importance of the last two bullets and the concepts behind them ... and a few other ones as well.  What's that, you've never read any of his articles?  Strange because I post them all the time ...

4) Technique

I view technique as a slightly different issue than tempo.  Technique is more about our positioning, flexibility, and executing the movement within a safe range of motion for our particular individual bodies.  Technique is keeping the back as flat as possible during a deadlift for example, and other such cues.  It is striving to stay in a solid, strong position throughout the execution of an entire rep or set of a movement.

There are an infinite amount of differing opinions and arguments over what constitutes proper technique.  I'm pretty sure by the latest estimates, 80% of the internet is porn and the other 20% is dedicated to arguing about the knees caving in during a squat.  Suffice it to say that we are all built differently and therefore all of our technical nuances are going to look a bit different, yet there are plenty of generic rules that we can abide by in order to keep us safe.  As a pertinent example here, the spine should probably not be flexing back and forth and changing position under a heavy load ... although I'm quite certain even that could be argued.

5) Stretching and Yoga

Yeah I know, most of us take a foam roller and smash our butt cheeks on it for 20 to 30 seconds or do a couple passes on our upper back after a 2-hour workout.  That's not what I'm talking about, because that's not actually doing anything.  I'm talking about taking the time every day to stretch and implement some simple yoga movements after our workouts.  Yeah, we didn't just add those strange holds into our classes for entertainment; it serves a very valid purpose.

Over the last 6 months, I've made a concentrated effort to get in at least 10 minutes of cool down and stretching after each and every session.  Usually I will do more if I have the time.  This is something I neglected and dismissed for a long time, and now I'm reaping the benefits.   You should too.

Wasn't just added to the class routine to liven up the scenery.

6) Cardio

Now we may be getting into the weeds just a bit, but I believe my increased cardio base has helped with my back issues as well.  Here's why:  as our cardio base increases, we recover faster between sets and between workouts.  Faster recovery means less accumulation of fatigue, and entering each workout in a more refreshed state.  In my previous 100% unconditioned state, I'm certain there are many times I would start a workout and still be under incredible tension from the workout (or workouts) before it.  So basically I would start the workout in an already compromised state, which would increase my risk of doing something stupid or causing a strain in one of those fun muscles right around my spine.

As is the ongoing theme here, the prescription is simple.  I'm not necessarily talking about increasing our ability to withstand blood-vessel bursting CrossFit workouts (although that's important too ... probably), but it's more about those longer, slower efforts.  Once or twice a week for 30-45 minutes at a moderate pace.

7) Assistance Exercises

I debated that this one should be higher on the list, and it probably should be somewhere right around #2 dealing with strength balance.  But I don't have all day to screw with the order, so here it is.  These are all the strength exercises that many of us view as pointless and boring filler:  Box Step Ups, Good Mornings, Farmers Carry, Suitcase Deadlifts, Split Squats, etc.  They actually serve several important purposes.  The first is that they shore up lagging muscle groups and unilateral (side to side) imbalances.  Perhaps our right quad is a lot stronger than the left, which throws our back into a nice twisting motion when we squat.  Well if we do split squats, the weak leg has nowhere to hide!  

Another (perhaps just as) important benefit is that all of these movements reduce the loading on the back while still maintaining the stimulus on our skeletal muscles.  For example we can't use nearly as much weight on a 1-leg deadlift as we can the conventional version, but for those of you that have had the pleasure of walking around for the couple days following a few sets of these, you know they have a very direct effect on the hamstring muscles.

Makes the quads grow AND spares the back ... What more could we ask for??

8) Nutrition

So I don't really have any direct "evidence" on this one.  I just threw it in because it's important overall and it improves everything else in life, so why would back pain be any exception?

9) Having Superior Genetics (sarcasm)

So that's the list.  I'm not saying that if we implement every single thing on this list to perfection, our back issues will disappear forever.  I'm just saying that I've implemented every single thing on this list - many of them being things I had never focused on before - and I've felt pretty damn good for the last year and a half.  The hope is that maybe this can serve to remind you of something that you may be neglecting, or have left out of your routine entirely.

It's also worth noting that I've been told on several occasions that my recent resistance to injury is actually due to my superior genetics3 .  If that's true, then it's only logical to assume that my proclivity to injury in year's past was due to my previously inferior genetics, and the implementation of the above methods has altered the sequencing and quality of my DNA.  And for the life of me, I don't understand why the world's most foremost scientists and geneticists are not banging down my door to study me and change the world as we know it.  So there.

Don't get all excited, this is not nearly as sexy as it sounds.

 As a general rule for the two movements mentioned here, the deadlift should likely be about 120-130% of the strength of the Back Squat across any rep range if you're looking for some hard numbers.  There are also a whole host of other ratios for every movement under the sun, and I'm happy to share those with anybody who cares enough to ask.

 I'll try to keep this rant short and sweet since it's a footnote:  99.999 times out of 100 when I hear someone cite genetics, luck, or other "uncontrollable" factors as the reason behind someone else's success, the person doing the bitching is the weaker of the two.  This could just be random coincidence or some sort of observational bias, but I personally find that statistic quite compelling.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Who To Blame ...

I've been in one car accident in my life.  I was still in high school, and it was the classic scenario of the driver in front of me slamming on his brakes because he was about to miss his turn for a gas station, and the world might come to an end if this moron had to go to the next stoplight and turn around.  So he locks it up, followed immediately by me slamming on my brakes.  Of course - because even as a teenager I was a superior driver, had been following at a safe distance, was paying close attention, and have also been blessed with a decent reaction time - I was able to screech to a halt about 4 inches shy of his bumper.  I'm pretty sure the jackass behind me didn't even move his foot off the accelerator.  Still to this day, has to be the loudest noise I've ever heard.

But one of the most memorable moments of that accident that left a lasting impression on me over the years was the reaction of the driver that slammed into me as he pushed away his airbag and stumbled out of his car:  he immediately started blaming me.  Of course he did.  Here you are, king of the dipsh!ts, that just slammed into the back of somebody else at 40 MPH, and it's certainly not going to be your fault.  Isn't this such a typical reaction?  He just screwed up royally, and the first thing he's going to do - before even checking to make sure everyone is okay and alive - is start pointing the finger.  Ah, humans1.

I read a book a while back called Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell.  The book is partly about our instantaneous reactions and how our mind is able to process information and react in fractions of a second.  It's also about how some of these momentary decisions and impressions are vital to our survival and may one day save us from danger or mortal peril.  But more importantly, he also talks a lot about how incredibly flawed our immediate mental reflexes may be, for a variety of reasons2.  So I've come to believe that numbnut's reaction after slamming into the back of my beautiful '89 Ford Taurus was pretty standard, and probably something that we all do on a regular basis:  take that first faulty instinct to blame somebody else, and run with it.

Malcolm is a phenomenal writer, but has he ever used the word numbnuts in any of his work?  I highly doubt it.

When I started reflecting on this a little bit, I realized that it's actually something I do quite often myself.  Of course, I'm talking about where it really matters the most: in the gym.  I started to think back on some of the injuries I suffered over the years, when I stalled out on my lifts and stopped making progress, or perhaps when I was just struggling for motivation.  What was the reason?  Of course, it was something external.  Surely it wasn't anything I was doing wrong.  It was the program, or the frequency of certain movements, my environment, my workout crew, or the coaching.  Essentially it was anything that would allow me to deflect responsibility away from the real issue:  me.

This is tough, and it's something I'm still learning how to fight.  Even now - in my infinite age and wisdom - I still pull this crap.  Just a couple weeks ago, my right knee started to ache.  And the first place my mind went was "well the volume of my program has just been way too high lately."  Now luckily I never said that out loud or voiced it to anyone ... because of course it was wrong.   The real problem was me, not following directions and not doing what was intended of the program, pushing it too far during times when I was supposed to be easing back.  The volume wasn't too high - I was making it too high.

I hear it all too often:  we suck at snatching because there are too many sumo deadlift high pulls in the program.  We got hurt because the coaches pushed us too far.  We're not showing up to the gym because our normal workout partners have been slacking or the class-time offerings are poor.  We can't stick to our nutrition plan because our spouse and co-workers are making it too difficult.  That's the beautiful thing about most excuses: they usually deflect the blame to an external factor, as opposed to facing the fact that our own behavior is currently flawed.

Sure thing Johnny Turtleback, it's certainly the program that's causing all those missed snatch reps ...

So is there a way to re-condition our brains and fight that initial reaction when something isn't going our way?  Of course there is.  We let that reaction happen - inside our head - and recognize it.  Then turn it around and point it in the other direction, and ask ourselves what it is that we may be doing wrong.  Now don't misunderstand me:  sometimes external factors certainly do contribute to our own failings3.  But way more often that not, I'd be willing to guess that if we weren't too distracted changing that CD while driving, we could have prevented the car accident in the first place - regardless of the actions of anybody around us.

Worth noting that I actually knew the guy who ran into me:  he was a kid from my high school, and at the time of the accident we had a class together and he sat right behind me.  However, he didn't even recognize me at the scene of the accident ... which should give you a pretty good idea about the cognitive abilities of this perennial "D" student.

 If you're interested in reading up on some cool psychological and neurological stuff that's written in an entertaining way human's can understand, I'd recommend picking this book up.  Or really anything Gladwell has written.

 An example of this would be those recent few years where I got really fat.  I blame the Internet.