Less function, more art

So, let’s get this down on paper first. I hate the word functional.

It’s not a problem with the word itself, it’s that like the words “natural”, “healthy” and “fitness” it has become virtually meaningless.

Every time someone uses the word functional, ask them the question “functional for what?”. Most of the time they won’t be able to answer, or you will get a garbled stream of nonsensical scientific sound and fury that signifies nothing.

There are several things that constantly get thrown into the functional movement category:

1. Anything where we add resistance to a sports specific movement, like swinging super heavy swords around or attaching a baseball to a resistance band and pitching it in the vague hope that this is not as silly as it looks. Loading a skilled sports specific movement does not make you better at that movement. In fact, it could make you worse. Save adding weight for the gym.

2. Any time we add a variability beyond the reasonable scope of what you encounter in your specific pursuit. Wanna get good at squatting? Why not squat while on an unstable surface with a weight over your head while singing yankee doodle? That sounds better than actually practicing the movement you want to improve. Stability training is fun, however, doing weighted lifts on a balance board or bosu ball will only mean you can lift less overall weight, and generally the only time most people will see any benefit will be if they participate in a sport that takes place on bosu balls.

3. Anything that arbitrarily strings a bunch of movements together for no reason other than to add unnecessary complexity, because for some reason people can’t distinguish “simple” from “easy”. Let’s take a fairly common example. I can overhead press a heavier dumbbell than I can curl. If I do a combo exercise where I curl and press the dumbbell, my overhead press is likely not going to get worked the way my curl is, and there’s no real way to do a combo exercise that will in this case.

This doesn’t mean that combo exercises don’t have a place but, in general, people use them (and coaches offer them) without realizing that they can severely limit the outcome.

My real dislike of functional fitness, however, is more of a philosophical problem. Do things because you enjoy them. Do things because they make you feel good about yourself. Do “fitness” because it makes you more able to do the things you care about. Not everything needs to be incredibly efficient to have value.

Ultimately, my job is teaching people to pick up heavy things and not take them anywhere. Yes, it has applications, and yes, I would even sometimes describe it as functional (when I can answer the functional for what? question). However at the end of the day, whether you do it with bars, kettlebells, bands, or body weight strength training is fun, and that is where the artistry lies.

Zero: How Starting From Nothing Builds Success

We often do too much from a fear of doing nothing. We don’t give ourselves enough time to think about what we do because that’s when doubt can creep in.

The problem with never really embracing this zero state is that often we do too much and never do anything well. If we constantly need to try to maintain habits then it becomes a game of spinning plates. Some people can maintain many many plates before they come crashing down around them, but even when it looks good to us outsiders, it doesn’t mean the person is happy or the act is sustainable.

Accept starting from nothing, scrub clean the list of things you are trying to achieve, and pick one thing you want to do this year people spend decades struggling with nutrition because they don’t spend the time working on one single thing at a time. Start from zero, work on one habit at a time until that habit is so ingrained it is your new not-trying. Start from a baseline, and focus on a task until the baseline catches up and it’s easier to do it than to not do. Then, pick another.

Here’s some start from zero habits that you can begin with, and I guarantee there are some people out there  reading this that despite all the more advanced things they manage to keep going don’t manage these simple tasks:

Not enough diversity at meals: Add a handful of colorful veggies to every meal.

Not enough physical activity: Add 3 x 20-30min walks to your weekly habits (I lift weights 5x a week, and I still get the physical benefits of going for walks, every athlete should strive for it)

Not sleeping enough: Set an alarm for an hour before when you need to go to bed each night to get 8 hrs of sleep. That alarm tells you when it’s time to turn off your phone and start winding down for sleep. TV off, laptop off, start getting ready for bed and set stuff up for the morning.

Too much social media: Download an app that limits using your phone (I use Offtime). Aim for an hour a day where you don’t check your phone. You can do pretty much anything else, just engage with it. This coincides nicely with going for a walk.

Not enough face to face time with loved ones: Aim for one date night a week. Accept no other distractions, schedule changes, and never cancel without rescheduling. If you can’t do a week, try every 2 weeks, or every 4, but part of the agenda of date night is scheduling the next one.

Mastery is not built on doing the advanced things, mastery is built on developing foundations first. If you want to learn to spin 20 plates, start with one.

There are No Shortcuts; Just Dead Ends

I recently had a discussion on social media about this particular item:

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They are a kind of cutesy self defense device being marketed to women.

Now, these are stupid, illegal, and unlikely to even offer an advantage in a self defense scenario. Not only that, but they are explicitly sold as a weapon, and therefore would probably mitigate any claim that it was not carried as such in court (at least in Canada, where intent is the rule). Part knuckle duster, part push knife, 100% monumentally stupid.

This is a shortcut, and to many lay people it seems like a smart one. There’s another problem, though, apart from this being a particularly stupid choice: when it comes to preparing for life and death scenarios, if you set yourself up looking for shortcuts you are immediately entering with a self-defeating attitude.

This is true in training as well. When people seek out the “easiest” or “fastest” routes to fitness they miss the point, and set themselves up for failure, because real lasting change is neither easy, nor is it fast. It is in fact incremental, frustrating and sometimes boring. This is why I generally avoid those single sheet bodyweight exercise plans like the plague, particularly the ones based on movies (which bear no resemblance to how the actors got in shape for their roles). Results are based on effort and commitment. In the words of Ron Swanson, “Don’t half ass two things; whole ass one thing”. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start with something achievable like 5 minutes of exercise a day, it just means that when you decide to do that you commit wholeheartedly.

The thing to tell yourself is that it is worth the effort. If you don’t believe that then why pursue it in the first place.

Things that are worth doing are worth doing right, and seeking the easy path sets us up with a lose-lose scenario right from the get go. If you cut corners and succeed, the results will be underwhelming. When you cut corners and fail, you can end up thinking “well it was the easiest option so why bother trying again?”

Give things the time and effort they deserve and don’t look for shortcuts, because most short cuts are just dead ends.

How You Can Resist Being a Gym-Bro

I have made this statement many times, but never in print. But let’s face it, it’s a hard thing to quantify and I can only speak from my observations as a weightlifter, a martial artist, a coach, an ex-nightclub bouncer, and a man who has never really found a place in traditional masculine roles.

The biggest problem for women in a class atmosphere is men. The biggest problem for men is also men.

Now to try to articulate that statement.

I am not going to waste a lot of time on the first part of that statement, because frankly if you don’t agree I feel a much better way to understand it would be to go and ask your female-identifying peers if they have experienced it. And then actually listen to them when they answer. Maybe it’s not the case for all women, and I don’t want to speak for them, but I have met many women who have been put off of training by the machismo culture around physical training and martial arts.  That’s a genuine challenge. Go listen to other people’s stories.

 

The behaviors that affect women, however, also affect men. Both as victims of those behaviors and as perpetrators.

There is a huge problem in martial arts and fitness around bro-culture, that is the idea that says “lift heavier, hit harder, speak with authority, because that is how people will know you’re a real man” that we associate with “meat heads” but likely we have all been guilty of at some point.

Here’s the problem with that statement though: lifting heavier than you are able, hitting harder than you need to, speaking with authority when you lack it are things impede your practice and the practice of those around you.

Not only is the idea that you need to be a “real man” destructive, exclusionary and really, really stupid, it also does something that is inimical to progress, it removes you from the present moment.

Every time you tell yourself a story, about what you “should do”, “should lift” or your partner “should be able to do,” you remove yourself from the present and disconnect yourself from reality, from the problem in front of you. This is disastrous to progressive training which requires slow methodical improvements and, in a self-defense context, it could be fatal. Far too many people die every year because of that little voice that says “don’t be a pussy, stand up for yourself” when it is neither smart nor necessary to do so. We don’t want to be that person on the street, so we certainly shouldn’t be that person in training.

The simple fact is most men who wrap themselves in those stories do so because they feel they are not true, and they desperately want them to be. Don’t give in, and don’t let your training partners do so either; progress is built on seeing yourself where you are right now, not where society tells you should be.

We’re probably all a little guilty of this, but we can be better practitioners and training partners by grounding ourselves in the moment, resisting machismo storytelling and working with the person in front of us at their level.

There’s no shame in being welcoming, being respectful, being silent; in fact, they make you better at everything you do.

Homework:

Here’s an exercise to help curb the “bro-culture” behaviors that many of us have internalized as normal.

Whenever you give advice as a peer, ASK first. Say “hey, can I give you a piece of advice” and if they say no say “cool, enjoy your practice” and leave it at that, and only give advice you are certain is correct, keep it concise, and ONLY correct within the bounds of the exercise they are doing right now. Even better, ask the instructor to give the advice, rather than assuming you know best, and treat it as a learning opportunity for you to see if your assessment was correct.

Ask for Support, Not Instruction

Say that your car has broken down.

You go ask your friends for recommendations of a good mechanic. You don’t ask for recommendations on how to fix it yourself with zero automotive knowledge, and then do your best to follow the instructions on what “worked for them”.

Health and fitness are weird. You can do the wrong thing enough and if we only focus on a few metrics like weight loss or muscle gain you will look like what you are doing is “right” and “works”. However, you can gain muscle and lose fat while having serious nutritional deficiencies, or while creating long-term injuries that will only really show up in later life.

When our car breaks down, we seek a professional, particularly when we lack knowledge of the subject.

When we want advice on fitness and nutrition, we crowdsource it from our friends based on what “works for them”. This is a backward approach.

Every time I see a friend post about weight loss on facebook I see people recommending dangerous, stupid, and unscientific solutions. Many of these contain highly toxic ways of thinking about food. When confronted about their statements they will often claim it “works for them” then, when questioned what they mean by that they are unable to answer.

Social support is incredibly important. It’s great to get friends to recommend classes with professional trainers, science-based books by nutritionists, and other resources that do not rely on “it works for me” as their source.

However, we are more likely to succeed  if we refuse to take advice from people that do not know what they are talking about, and don’t ask them to begin with.

You wouldn’t try to fix your car based off of a comment thread on the internet with no knowledge of auto-repair, for the same reason you shouldn’t trust your health to the advice of strangers without first seeking a professional (and your friends can help you do this!). Ask for resources, not advice. Ask for support, not direction.

Is Sugar The Root of All Evil, Hellbent on Destroying Us All?

No*

Sorry to disappoint, but as much as we want to hate on a particular foodstuff, it’s really not, because the fact is food is not good or bad. Nor is it evil, “clean”, healthy or pure.

Food is food.

A better question than whether something is “good” or “healthy” is does this suit my goals?  

The problem with this question is it takes a little reading and experimenting to know what is suitable for you. This work is worth doing, but it is certainly daunting for many people. Try experimenting with a portion guide like this one, and see what works with your lifestyle. 

A small amount of added sugar is completely fine for a person who is physically active and eats a balanced diet. In fact, if you are engaged in certain activities (like marathon running or the weight gain stage of bodybuilding) added sugar may actually help you meet your caloric needs and achieve your goal.

If you don’t exercise and work a sedentary job, added sugar can have serious, long-term health effects. The watchword here is context.

The point is that no food if it suits your needs is bad. No food is good unless it is fulfilling a need. Unless you are a competitive athlete or figure competitor, we don’t want to get to a place where you can’t ever eat the food you want. That is miserable, and changing your diet or exercise regime should make you happier, otherwise what is the point? We want to build habits that allow you to have the things you want, and achieve your goals at the same time. We want balance.


Drop the labels. Foods are not bad, they are not evil, they may just not be suitable to helping you achieve your goals right now. Not only will understanding this allow you to make suitable food choices for you, it will probably make your relationship with food healthier too.

*Worth noting, this article is about personal choice. There certainly is an industry behind sugar that has little care or regard for consumers health, wellbeing, and happiness and this corporate interest may certainly be considered unethical. 

Give What You Can Spare; Keep What You Need.

How long is a workout?

A better question is how long do you have?

In a conversation with a student this week, the subject of giving 100% came up and how they were training. Due to illness and stress, they were not training at the capacity that they had previously been at. They were happy though that even though the volume of work that 100% represented had changed, they were able to come back and hit 100%.

It is important when training to give what you can spare and keep what you need.

Give what you can spare

If you can’t spare 2 hours a day to train, don’t commit to it and certainly don’t select a program that requires it. That is a recipe for failure.

Instead, work with what you have. What available time do you have in your week that you can spare to train? Do you waste 10 minutes a day on your cellphone doing nothing? Great, now you can train 10 minutes a day.

If you cannot do 10 minutes a day, you can’t do 30 mins a day, and you certainly cannot do 2 hours. Start small with a daily commitment, and as you find you can do it, try to find more time to dedicate to training.

Keep what you need.
You need to do certain things to survive. Eat, sleep, work, commute. You should not need to give up these things to find training time.

You need to do other things to be happy. Relax, play, socialize, recover. These should also not be given up in the name of training.

Keep the things you need to survive and be happy but be brutal in cutting out everything else.

Something I have found has been really useful is downloading an app that stops me wasting time on my phone (I use Offtime). Suddenly I have extra time in my day when I have something stopping me from procrastinating. How odd. That 10 or 20 minutes you can save is, for someone who currently does not train, enough to make a huge difference to their health, or for someone who does train regular, an opportunity to learn a new skill or refine an old one, add in mobility work, or expand the type of training you do.

Be Flexible in Your Training Needs

If you attend the gym a lot, you will see that some people spend their entire time frustrated. They pace back and forth, hassle people about when they will be done with a piece of equipment they need, and just generally don’t seem to be having a good time.

They have needs, they have a schedule,  and don’t we know that if they absolutely don’t do squats today that they will lose their hard-won gains?

Boo hoo.

I train in a community centre, it has 4 squat racks and a lot of demand. Sometimes you have to wait, or sometimes you have to just decide you are not getting a rack that day. Don’t become the kind of person who is so incredibly regimented that they ignore the bigger picture. Training is never perfect.

Cultivate adaptability and you can train anywhere. In the gym, in the woods, in a playground. Will it be perfect? No. But nothing ever is.

The simple fact is that training stress comes from expectation. Where you should be, what you should do, and how you should do it and nothing sucks the fun out of an activity more than “should”.

A really good example of this, I have a couple of throwaway workouts that I use when I feel uninspired, tired, or just don’t have the time. If you NEED 4 sessions of two hours a week in the gym, the second your life gets hectic, something will give. When building a training program (not just fitness, for any discipline) build it around things you will stick to 90% of the time that yields results. When your training time gets cut (and it will, life finds a way), having the ability to go back to that almost sure thing will mean a lot to your long-term progress rather than doing nothing.

Examples of throw away work-outs:

Big lifts and bodyweight. Each of my gym sessions is built around a big lift (squat, deadlift, bench, overhead press) and a body weight exercise (dips, chin ups, push ups or leg raises). If I have limited time in the gym, I just do the big lift. If I can’t get to the gym, I do the bodyweight exercises. The important thing is I do something rather than nothing.

Kettlebell swings. Unsure what to do? Do a thousand kettlebell swings. Break it up into sets, take breaks as you need to.

Take the 100 rep challenge.

Go for a run.

This applies to everything. If you are a boxer, ask your coach what the minimum training you should be doing every day is, and what do you do if you have no equipment. Swordfighter? Practice in your kitchen with a spoon when you cannot make it to class.

Greatness is not built on creating the perfect training session and then rigidly adhering to it at the cost of your health and happiness, greatness comes from seeing every experience no matter how small as an opportunity to train.

Bow to Authority! Seek Professionals to Maximise Success

I am not someone who defers to authority easily, but often the difference between success and failure can be our willingness to trust a professional.

We waste a lot of time and a lot of headspace on self-teaching. This is an important and valid part of any process, but most people delay, hinder, or even sabotage their goals just by being unwilling to defer to those who have gone before out of some misguided need to forge their own path. Learn the basics first.

I’ll admit right now, there is a financial barrier for many people who could benefit from coaching, but there are also many people for whom there is not. A good book is often better than bad guidance from your local gym junkie — who, by the way, may not know what they are talking about — and realistically the cost of a good book will likely repay itself time and time again

When it comes to training, your time is currency. If we work using BC’s minimum wage, a 30-40 dollar, well-researched book is 4 hours of labor. Likely you can get many good books for less (Tom Furman’s Armor of War is less than $15 CAN). How much time do you reckon you have wasted researching your own programs, wondering what to do at the gym, being injured from bad advice or simply wrapped up in self-doubt because you aren’t seeing progress. More than 4 hours? I’d bet on it.

There are many ways to seek professional guidance. Some are even free, or the cost of a cup of coffee. Some are a bit pricier, like one on one coaching.

Read a blog. Read up on programs. Reach out to a coach and ask for book recommendations. Read reviews. Just pay someone to be your coach (after reading reviews of course). Be critical in your selection, but once you have picked a program or a coach submit to their authority (without losing your critical thinking).

Yes, there are a lot of bad coaches out there, but there are a lot of great ones too. Do the work now to find the one that works for you and you could save years of directionless training and wandering between programs.

While we are at it, ditch the easy fitness infographics that give you a few bodyweight exercises, very little progression and no guidance on form. There are no shortcuts. Some routes are well planned, some lead nowhere (some even have friendly sherpas), but fitness is a lifelong journey that deserves your attention.

Good starting points:

Barbell training

Mark Rippetoe: Starting Strength (also available as an App that does all the work for you! apart from the actual weightlifting)
Jim Wendler’s 5-3-1

 

Bodyweight training

Tom Furman: Armor of War
Pavel Tsatsouline: The Naked Warrior
Kettlebells
Pavel Tsatsouline: Enter the Kettlebell

Focus on Disaster: How to Use Impending Doom to Set Training Goals.

Functional training is all the rage but how often do we actually question whether our training is, in fact, functional?

Not “Functional™” but functional.

Could you lift a log, climb a rope, throw a punch, carry a wounded person or wrestle an assailant to the ground if you needed to do those things in a life or death situation?

Chances are you won’t have to. If such an event arises, however, at that point it is far too late to wish you trained more. It’s too late to wonder what all those skipped training sessions would add up to. There is no perfect self, you are who you are when circumstances call you to act. If I told you in 6 months you would need to fight for your life, you would probably train harder right now.

Here’s a game you can try to integrate into your training that creates that sense of time urgency:

First off, right now, rank your ability in your discipline from 1-10, with 10 being the highest (Whether this is fitness or martial arts, put a number on it, and try to be honest). Bear in mind, in a life or death situation, this is the number that right now you have to work with, is it enough?

Say you are a six. Now write down (with consideration to your available time, focus on what is possible without quitting your job and neglecting your dog):

How would I get to 7 if I only had 6 months to train before a disaster?
How would I get to 7 if I only had a month to train?

How would I get to 7 if I only had a week to train?

Now write down all the barriers that are preventing you from getting to that 7 within those time frames. Every single negative thought you had while writing the answers down above put it on the page.

Guess what? The likelihood is you now have the bare bones of a training outline for the next 6 months, and you know what barriers will prevent you from achieving that. Don’t know how to get to that next level? Now you have a much better idea of what to ask for professional, qualified help with and what barriers you will encounter.

Can’t get to 7 in six months? Aim for 6.5.  The goal is to envision what you would do if you were given a tight schedule to work with and use that to inform your training plan. Having the rest of your life to get good at something is only useful if you actually use that time, which historically we do not.

When I sit down with people in coaching sessions and they evaluate some aspect of their life as a six, and I ask them “Gun to your head; if you had one week to get to 7, what would you start doing today?” nearly everyone has an answer, and I’ll bet you do too.