The Piñata & The Wrecking Ball: Why can small people hit so hard?

You can’t tell freakishly strong people by looking at them. Some athletes “look like Tarzan but play like Jane,” but I’m fascinated by the opposite, people who are deceptively strong. People who look like a piñata but hit like a wrecking ball.      

(That’s not just paddycake. That girl jabs like a tire iron.)

An octagenarian taijiquan teacher once had me bang forearms with him, and his felt like jelly rolls with rebar in the middle. This summer a female instructor of maybe 120 lbs. demonstrated a slap block on my left arm that felt like it came out my right kidney. Last week I took stinging jabs from a 12-year old jeet kune do prodigy, and she whipped out these lazy leads that could smack my eye like a rolled-up beach towel.

“Stealthy Strength”

As cool people who read this blog know, strength is a surprisingly “stealthy” quality. It’s almost as hard to pick out strong people by looking at them as it is to guess who’s a good piano or chess player. Much of “real-world strength” comes down to the very unsexy, un-visual traits of grip and rotation/counter-rotation, and hence as a great man once wrote, “strong hands + strong abs = strong person.” (And as we began to explore last week, the formula really should read “strong feet + strong hands + strong abs.”) There are some other factors too, like connective tissue and neurological efficiency, but you can’t see those with the naked eye either, short of dissecting someone.

Bob Peoples deadlifted almost quadruple bodyweight, in an age before steroids, at age forty, but you’d look right past him on a beach. A farmer his whole life, Peoples obviously had unearthly tendon and ligament strength that few Americans today are likely to approach. That’s a HUGE ingredient in “stealthy” strength that’s not visible in a weight room mirror.
Frank’s hands are like the massive root ball of a mutant redwood in the Dagobah system.

Granted, there exist some useful heuristics, but they’re not eye-catching or (to a modern eye) intuitive. Dan John has remarked that, if looking for strong football players, you should view them from the back, where you can scope out their glutes and hams and lats, because those muscle groups count for more than chests and shoulders. And if I had to wager on a strongman contest, I’d put my money on someone with big, tendonous hands and forearms. My great uncle Frank, who repaired elevators for 40 years, has hands that grew thick in every dimension and freaky tendons like gnarled tree roots on Yoda’s home planet. Last time I visited, he spent the day putting in split-rail fence posts by hand at age 85. 

As we’ve discussed here before, you can tell more about physical attributes by seeing people in motion.  Loose-limbed people with corrugated abs or whippy waists? Those are your natural lumberjack types. Definitely pick them for your volleyball team. At one softball game in grad school, this skinny guy from the school of education tried out a bat by making a couple loose, sleepy arcs from the shoulders, and instantly you knew this guy could knock satellites out of orbit. Twenty more like him with ponies and croquet mallets could have Genghis Khan’ed the whole Metro Boston area. 

A few months ago I began again with my boyhood obsession, martial arts. I started making pilgrimages to the Greenville Academy of Martial Arts, home to three interlocking programs in boxing, JKD, and my boyhood favorite, wing chun.

Jason Korol, head instructor at the Greenville Academy of Martial Arts. In coming months I’ll be reflecting a lot on this blog about their teachings, but I’m totally unqualified to do so. Whatever damned fool things I say are not their fault and probably do not adequately describe their ideas. What does do justice to them are their excellent books and YouTube channel. You should probably just stop reading this blog now, go there, and forget about Lean Solid Dogs forever.)

After 20 years as a (mediocre) strength athlete, I can’t help relating everything they teach to strength sports and thinking of fight training as a sort of “applied strength” sport.

I know, I know, jeet kune do isn’t a “sport” in the sense of “rule-governed recreational contest,” but it still is in the older sense, in which hunting, fishing, and mountaineering are “sports.”

No, fighters don’t lift barbells or kettlebells for a score, but they score by exerting force on something heavy. Oly lifters loft barbells, shot putters throw iron balls, pugilists throw shots, and wrestlers throw bodies. QED: fight training is an applied strength sport. 

And a body accustomed to strength sports finds tons of familiarity in the new skills of fight training: the feet and knees feel like club swinging; the elbows feel like a certain kind of bench pressing; the “short power” (短劲) feels like board presses and lockouts; technique training benefits from “greasing the groove;” things about the wooden dummy feel like girevoy sport.

Club swinging is to kettlebells what heroin is to cough syrup. Master coach Tom Furman, my personal voice of reason and adult supervision, put me back onto this and directed me to the work of this guy, Mark Wildman. Like everything Tom tells me to do, it’s awesome. And the carryover to wing chun was unexpected but enormous.

So it feels like an ever-new mystery when I get overpowered in fight training by short, thin, or otherwise gracile people who, it seems to me, can’t possibly have as much power. Not just outmaneuvered and outskilled, but manhandled or just plain pounded. I’m talking bony teenagers, featherweight women, even a girl who’s too young for PG-13 and weighs less than my checked luggage. What gives?

The wooden dummy, wing chun’s “second sifu,” tells you when your structure is weak. This is what strong looks like: bones all lined up in triangles that point at the bad guy’s center of gravity. With structure this good, even if this student were made of balsa wood, with some footwork he could wedge this bad guy up off his center of balance. And then comes the hand in the throat.

The answers still come down to elementary school physics, just as with barbell squats and bicycles, but the applications are zanier, more complicated, and more interesting than plain old flat-footed strength sports and cyclic endurance sports. That makes “martial strength” like chess to powerlifting’s checkers.

How Come Girl Scouts, Flyweights, Elves, and Stick Figures Can Hit Hard? 

Here’s what this humbled, has-been strength athlete has figured out so far. 

1. Fast and Loose

“Hitting hard is about mass times acceleration,” said the coach one night. “You can’t get bigger during a fight, so you have to get faster.” And it turns out that speed is teachable, too. A lot of it seems to involve being loose—tense is never faster that loose. So if the light, willowy person can relax better than the stiff, heavy person, she becomes a better puncher. 

This is an area where I have TONS of room to improve. Just as “the man with a hammer treats everything like a nail,” I approach every problem with tension. Now that I’m waking up to what “usefully loose” really feels like, I’m discovering excess tension all over my body: in my quads, my hip flexors, my waist, shoulders, arms, and even my traps. I would hear coaches telling me, “Relax, be loose!” but it took weeks before I experienced what it was like to punch with a relaxed waist. (For what it’s worth, my “aha!” moment was a low-speed mitt warmup, hitting crosswise for a completely unrushed 1-2-3-4-5. It felt like hitting a slow, fat softball when you’re not rushing to meet the ball and, with no effort or tension, you bang it right on the sweet spot when it’s exactly out in front of you.)

2. Levers

Height and long limbs look like they help a lot. I wouldn’t know, since I’m a short fireplug, but long limbs must make great levers. They sure do when tall people are flinging them at me. Those punches come in fast and hard, sometimes quicker than I can even see them.

Don’t cry for the short people. They have their own leverage tricks, like at clinching distance, where Lady Physics smiles on the lower center of gravity. (Photo courtesy of parhessiastes.)

But long arms and legs are only one type of leverage. There are others too that are part of any person’s punching mechanics. At the Greenville Academy, there’s lots of talk about Jack Dempsey, and I bet that nobody would think it was too weird if I showed up with quotations from the Manassa Mauler’s book Championship Fighting tattooed on my arms. In fact, if Greenville weren’t so Protestant, you’d probably see icons of Jack lit by votive candles. (As it is, I’m pretty sure one family at the school named a child after him.) So anybody who’s paying attention in Sifu Jason Korol’s classes should know by heart Dempsey’s four sources of power for straight punches—the “falling step,” “springing step,” “shoulder whirl,” and “upward surge”—plus a couple others that aren’t legal in boxing, like holding and hitting. Mostly these are simple applications of leverage. For example, once your fist is in motion, you can put more speed on it by springing off your back foot (a class 2 lever) like a fencer, and/or rotating your shoulder girdle (a lever arm) around your vertical axis. Skilled people can sequence those so that they add up like two waves that are “in phase” and then the fist/palm/foot cracks the mitt like a bullwhip, reliably.

3. Structural Strength

Maybe leverage suffices to explain the 12-year-old JKD girl who zings long-range smart bombs from somewhere around the height of my armpits. But wing chun spends a lot of time on what amounts to clinching, stand-up grappling, or dirty boxing. To my mind, that calls to mind wrestlers struggling for neck and arm control, grip-fighting judo players, Thai clinches, and grapplers pummeling for underhooks and overhooks. That should be Muscletown USA, right?

That’s where I expected some consolation for my ego. “Well, you martial artists. I may not be able to punch a Tickle-Me Elmo doll off a toy store shelf, but if I can just get in a shoving match with you…”

But that doesn’t work either! A gaunt teenager grabs my elbow and pushes me around like a shopping cart! On paper, I feel, I should be much too strong to let him steer me around. Or at least too heavy and short! So how can he do that? 

The guy’s got incredibly good structure. Young, ectomorphic, and still filling in, nevertheless he keeps every bone lined up against me so that, if I push, I’m pushing against a big tripod. If I press further, to bull my way through, the tripod falls aside a couple of inches and then I’m (a) stumbling past with a fist in my face, (b) slingshotted by my elbows, (c) clutched by my throat, or (d) all of the above.

Consider those cool science fairs where kids build weight-bearing bridges out of toothpicks. At a recent one, the winning toothpick bridge supported over eleven hundred times its own weight. Relative to that, my young partner has it easy: he could be nothing but bones in a track suit and I still couldn’t bull in on his structure. With that and footwork, he can walk me all over the dance floor like Fred and Ginger. You have to experience it to really believe it.

All the good wing chun and JKD people there are like that. They may only weigh a buck twenty, but if you try to muscle them, you’re pushing at smoke; as soon as give them your center, rotate away from them, lift an elbow, cross your hands or feet, or commit one of many other positional sins, they’re on you with their entire weight. The whole 120 pounds falls on you all together, in one dense package, like Tarzan swinging on a rope and drop-kicking you.

The cool thing about structure is that it gives more strength without even needing more tension. It’s not magic, of course—physics is still physics. But if you’ve ever been a so-so powerlifter and then gotten good coaching, you know how your bench press goes up in literally minutes when the coach fixes your untutored hand, elbow, and back position. No, you can’t stop a charging elephant or knock out a gorilla just with good structure. But it turns out you can handle most humans that way, which continues to blow my mind whenever people do it to me. 

* * * *

Structure is a (wonderfully) complicated subject. Not mysterious—no chakras, no kundalini energy—but still complicated in the sense that there are so many moving parts (feet, ankles, knees, hips, etc.), degrees of freedom, axes of movement, fulcrums and centers of rotation, and so on. As Sifu Aaron Bouchillon says of wing chun, “Some assembly is required.” 

But there are other, simpler, “plug and play” techniques for hitting power that give quick gratification. Some sound recondite but aren’t (“borrowed energy,” “short power”), others sound as plain and unexotic as they really are, like holding-and-hitting.

We’ll return to those another day. In the meantime, as they like to say in Greenville, in the words of Jim Driscoll, another nearly canonic figure:

Hit first. Hit straight. Hit hard. Hit often.

Lean Solid Dogs, Your Fashion Trendsetter

A few times in my life, I’ve been ahead of the curve on something, like kettlebells and kombucha. But this is the first time that Lean Solid Dogs has scooped the Style page of the New York Times. Here at LSD we’ve been writing for a lot longer (and better, if I may say) about chaussures de brousse (“bush shoes”), the rubber-soled, canvas/jungle boots of the French Foreign Legion.

Style reporters, if you’re reading this, then (1) I weep for you, and (2) pick up jackboots with foot wraps for a future piece. (Also, schedule a story for January on slip-on shoes with German-style foot wraps. I’ll write the story for you in a few days and you can just rewrite it 😉

Feet Are the New Core

Good news: The “core” isn’t the all-important missing link anymore. The cool kids have moved on. Now feet are the new core. Thank heaven, because I got bored of direct midsection work long before the fools in marketing renamed it the “core.”

When did they coin that phrase anyway? I missed the Nineties, living in pre-internet China. But when I came home, I found retail fitness consumers doing “Pilates” (no relation to the crucifixion, it turned out) and I was solemnly informed there was thing called the “core.” The big message was that, even if you have strong prime movers (legs, hips, shoulders), you can’t employ their power if you have a weak, uncoordinated middle. 

In the early 2000s, what Tapout shirts were to MMA, Prowler pushes were to power sports. The Prowler was like a pre-Crossfit beta test for the “masochistic fitness cult identity ritual,” using test subjects who were fat, thick-necked bearded men who looked awful in lycra.

We were taught to think of power flowing up from the ground, through the legs and out the arms; but it would “leak” or dissipate if the midsection lacked the strength to “connect” the lower and upper body. This was and still is true. Imagine you mount a medieval battering ram on a parade float made of Jello: it can’t smash down the castle gates. And if you build strength with, say, a barbell, you work mostly in a vertical plane (against gravity) and might be quite out of your element trying to use it in a horizontal world, unless you have the abs and waist to help your leg drive “turn the corner” and flow through your arms. So in powerlifting and other insalubrious corners of the world, people started dragging sleds and pushing Prowlers.

But there was a glaring gap in the “power coming up from the ground” metaphor that no one bothered to notice. That’s the feet. Imagine a powerful batter or boxer whose feet were replaced with papier-mâché, or his ankles were turned into chewing gum. That would be the end of him. When he hit a ball hard or punched, he’d crumple at the ankles. Or imagine throwing a medicine ball or hitting a heavy bag while you’re on roller skates. You’d feel like the proverbial “cannon shot from a canoe.”

Yes, abs are important for expressing strength horizontally, but they’re actually far downstream of the feet. If strength were a flow chart, then the very first boxes would be, “#1. Are the feet generating power?” “#2. Are they sending it at the right angle?” and “#3. Are the feet holding firm, or are they collapsing or sliding off the launch pad?” The midsection only comes in much later, somewhere between “#12. Am I even going in the right direction?” and “#43. How’s my hair?”

Landing is even more important than launching (terrorism aside), with even bigger forces. Your feet do them every second or so. Given the million changing angles and variables and the insane tempo, and the millions of iterations, I can’t believe that feet have an even better safety and reliability record than jetliners, which another example of mind-blowing forces tamed so reliably that we are only shocked by the rare failures.

In aviation, when an aircraft makes one of these “inappropriate exits from the runway,” the hilariously understated technical term is “runway excursion.” The Latin is unimpeachable (ex+cursus, “running off the course”), but to me it sounds like “a visit to an air strip by Mrs. Beele’s 3rd graders” instead of “an Airbus screaming off the tarmac, plowing a furrow into someones’ neighborhood, and crushing into Dunkin Donuts.”

I got this particular memo late in my mediocre athletic career. I had just left powerlifting (which was forgiving of unathletic feet) and started doing weighted uphill carries and rucking. Needless to say, you don’t get far in those without active feet, and I was amazed to find my feet growing, in my forties! That shouldn’t have been a shock—after all, feet are made of muscle. I’d always thought of shoe size as a fixed quiddity, like eye color, but over a year or two I went up almost a full shoe size. 

Dr. Joel Seedman, prophet of foot and ankle conditioning for power athletes. Five years ago, his cutting edge work was read by a very small circle of cool kids, the very earliest of the early adopters. Then word leaked out and Seedman became the Next Big Thing. And in the past year the “early majority” have become interested and now small wars are fought over his ideas on Instagram.
OK, maybe there’s Chinese acrobat somewhere who can do Muhammad Ali footwork on her hands, but I can hear tendons popping and wrists snapping all the way from Beijing.
Your feet are your personal NFL offensive linemen. Anonymous and under-appreciated, even the lowliest have world-class strength and agility. They deserve more glory, because unless they do their job perfectly at every second, the whole play collapses instantly.

Even at that, my feet are still proving to be the biggest “growth area” in my re-emerging interest in combat sports. Since the summer, I’ve revisited my boyhood love of martial arts and so for the first time in maybe 30 years, I’m really moving my feet in all three dimensions. That is a subject for another day (actually, many many days!), but suffice it to say that it’s introduced me for the first time to the wonders of the heroic, athletic foot. “Footwork wins fights,” as the saying goes, and boy do the feet have to work! In one minute of sparring or drilling, your entire weight is changing direction abruptly 50~100 times, propelled by the feet. I take it for granted until I imagine attempting that same work load with my hands. Can you imagine shuffling, pivoting, and skipping like a kickboxer on your hands?! Impossible. 

Yet any average, undistinguished feet can be trained to do that for hours, every day. All the the humble foot asks is some food and rest, maybe a hot soak now and then, and some gentle massage on a lacrosse ball while you watch TV. On that meagre upkeep, your two personal super-athletes grow colossally thick and muscular (just compare your hand to your foot for a moment!) like a pair of NFL offensive lineman with even less recognition.

Coming up over the approaching weeks and months, more on martial arts from the perspective of strength sports.

Liberation Shoes: China’s Revolutionary Footwear

You pay a steep price for being first. You put in the effort and expense of inventing something, only for interlopers to copy your invention, improve it, and net better results on the back of your effort. In the 20th century, China’s People’s Liberation Army has usually been the parvenu who wisely refines others’ innovations on the cheap.

When they did pioneer something zany and new, you could expect two things for certain: it would be ingeniously economical, and it would lean heavily on the PLA’s genius for putting the “light” back in “light infantry.”

But that combination could go either of two ways, “cost-effective and nimble” or “cheap and flimsy.” They mean exactly the same thing, except one is brilliant and the other is merely good enough.

When the PLA invented its awesome chest rig, it was quickly recognized as China’s greatest invention since paper, printing, gunpowder, and compasses and spread to all the armies of the earth. But when the PLA invented the “liberation shoe,” it gave a fifth of humanity foot fungus.

The shoes ran me about $10, because I blew a little extra on the de luxe package, which included shoe laces.

Still, I had to try liberation shoes. Lean Solid Dogs is a laboratory not just of surplus gear but also of the human spirit! We do not shy away from a momentous and outrageously cheap item of Communist Bloc outdoor gear, even at the cost of discomfort and skin disease. (Besides, I’m already afflicted with a wicked foot fungus from my misspent youth in Red China. There’s nothing more they can do to me.)

Liberation shoes are as bound up with the founding of the People’s Republic as Betsy Ross, muskets, and sticking a feather in your hat and calling it macaroni. In 1950, China marched off to war in Korea just a year after completing their Communist revolution. As befit a New China, they shod their “volunteer” soldiers in a revolutionary new footwear that symbolized perfectly the difference between the Western way of war and the new Maoist way–cheap, flexible, expendable, and nimble.

The PLA turned its back on over a century of modern military science, wherein quartermasters sought to shod their infantry in a strong pair of boots. High or low, jackboots or lace-ups, leather or ersatz, with socks or foot wraps, puttees or gaiters or nothing–this was as far as they differed. Each infantryman represented just a rifle with feet, and the army meant to protect their investment with something stout.

But the leaders of China’s light infantry were not as concerned with protecting their feet as moving them, as quickly as possible and over terrain so broken that the UN troops would think it impassable.

They were equipped accordingly with New China’s first great military invention: the combat sneaker. Technically the “Type 50” shoes, but no one calls them that. They are known as “liberation shoes.”

“The American and South Korean armies wore … American-style combat boots, which were warm and durable but also cloddishly heavy,” reads a typical Chinese account. “… In contrast, the [Chinese] soldiers had grown up wearing grass or cloth shoes and were unaccustomed to heavy combat boots. … For summer wear, Liberation Shoes proved themselves light and well suited to long-distance marches” and climbing the Korean peninsula’s rocky terrain. In fact, the sneakers worked so well for climbing that the Chinese stuck with the sneakers even in the howling Korean winters!

The PLA was so thrilled with the performance of the liberation sneakers that it kept them in service for six decades. Just as you might expect of a country where “the army and the people were as close as fish and water” and the military enjoyed terrific prestige, the liberation shoe became a standard item for civilian laborers and farmers, appreciated for their affordability, comfort, and nice, grippy rubber sole.

What Rhymes With “Jungle?” (Hint: Think Ringworm)

But apparently some People’s Republics are never happy. (Yes, Vietnam, that side-eye is for you.) China started sending their “socialist younger brothers” in Hanoi tons of gear even before the French were driven out, including liberation shoes. Mao was sending trainloads of aid long before Stalin even condescended to like Ho Chi Minh’s new Facebook profile photo.

The Vietnamese disliked the Chinese, and if the two sides could only have been brought together on the Dr. Phil Show, they might have been able to talk out their toxic relationship. China played the patronizing and controlling philanthropist, and Vietnam was the sullen beneficiary who resented the strings attached but still wanted the gifts. And PLA leaders felt hurt by the favoritism shown by Mao, who was acting like a stingy old woman who neglects her own family only to lavish love on a hissing feral cat.

China annoyed the Soviets and Czechs with their whinging entitlement, only to complain about mooching, ungrateful Albanians and Vietnamese. 

So it must have stung that Vietnam didn’t like China’s remarkable liberation shoes. Sure, they stank. And the more you wore them, the funkier they got. But don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, Vietnam, especially when your war economy can’t even make its own toothpaste! And OK, the liberation shoes weren’t so durable either. If you worked hard and played hard, the shoes wore in just two months. But who cares? They’re cheap and replaceable. Heck, in the Communist world, “shoddy and expendable” is almost a feature, not a bug!

The problem was that liberation shoes were waterproof…but only kinda waterproof.

For long-distance running or walking, your prime directive is “keep your feet dry.” That means that shoes can choose from two basic strategies: (1) keep water out completely, like a jackboot, or (2) admit water and then expel it, like US jungle boots or French pataugas.

The Chinese liberation shoe tried half-heartedly to split the difference and failed. It floods and then traps water in the sealed, rubber bottom. Then your foot stews all day in a hot, soggy package that breeds malodorous funk and ringworm. And even when you take the liberation shoes off, they take a long time to dry. Too often, the shoes wouldn’t be completely dry before the soldiers had to put them back on.

So imagine that you go hiking for a couple days, and you carry a hunk of cheese in a damp Ziploc bag. That’s your foot.

I lived in China many a long year, and I’ve smelled a few things. So I know that when a Chinese infantry soldier, a man who can march for days on 1000 calories without complaint and link arms to walk through a field acting as a human mine detector–when that man admits that a shoe “smells terrible,” it means that “dogs would faint.”

In China that was still just a minor shortcoming–God bless the morale of the Chinese squaddie. But in the unremitting murk of the Laotian jungle, it was a deal-breaker. For the North Vietnamese draftee sent on the one-way journey down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the only blessing of his Chinese combat sneakers was that they would probably fall apart before they could give him trench foot. At the first opportunity, he would exchange them for the famous “Ho Chi Minh sandals” made from old tires.

Still, since the PLA saw fit to keep liberation shoes until just a decade ago, and they’re still bought and sold, I tried them out. Ten dollars and a day of sweaty feet are a small price to pay for Science.

My conclusion was that, unless you’re especially attracted to the color, you can ALL the benefits–the light weight, flexible sole, and low cost–with none of the athlete’s foot and odor just by buying a $10 pair of water shoes. If you’ve got actual capitalist money, try Palladiums or the imitations thereof. You’ll get the liberation shoe concept–light, flexible, and fleet of foot–just executed better, and “debugged” to keep you fungus free.

From Fourth Republic to Banana Republic: France’s Bush Hat

A further installment in our series on Hats of Defeat and the charms of French surplus gear.

Not even a quagmire. France’s Fourth Republic didn’t survive this, but its bush hat became a favorite with American yuppies.
(AP, 1951. CC)

It’s 1949. France grasps at torn shreds of empire like a gut-shot man clutches spilled entrails. In Hanoi, a French quartermaster designs the hat that will go on to symbolize this war. Someone needs to tell him gently, “This war might go aubergine-shaped and abandon thousands to death or slavery, so I’d avoid the whole ‘icon of infamous military incompetence and betrayal’ vibe.” 

Legionnaire of the 2e BEP keeping the Hanoi-Haiphong road open (1954).

But such is French exceptionalism that even though their empire dried and shriveled in Vietnam and Algeria, its hat lived on. For once in history, the losing side’s hat didn’t get chucked into ignominy but survived, spread its wings, and arose into an American yuppy fashion phenom. Yes, it was clunky, impractical, and kind of ugly, but so were go-go boots, and France made those a hit too. How does France always pull this off?

The Beret For the Bush Hat

In 1954, moments the French defenders were overrun at Dien Bien Phu, Col. Pierre Langlais burned the “hallowed red beret” of the paratroopers, to save it from desecration, and met his Viet Minh captors in the French colonial infantry’s plain old bush hat. 

Pierre Langlais (right), de facto commander at Dien Bien Phu, and his bush hat.
https://www.mofo-fdc.com/t53-le-general-marcel-bigeard

The berets had always been a problem, to tell the truth.

Hats are mostly symbolic, as we’ve noted before. That’s especially true of a red beret in a tropical war zone. It’s not protecting you from heat or sun, and it sure isn’t hiding you from the enemy. French paratroops actually wore these things in combat, which struck journalist Bernard Fall as fool-hardy because, well, what’s the French for “target on your head?” But that is how much the paratroops treasured the status conferred by their hard-won beret. 

The chapeau de brousse in Algeria.
The ANZACs’ famous slouch hat debuted at Gallipoli. A bad omen for France’s new hat, like naming it “bush hat, modèle de disaster of military incompetence that haunts a nation for generations.”
(Note that the brim is turned up on the left side. We’ll come to that in a moment.)

But on days when soldiers didn’t want their heads blown off, France needed practical headgear that wasn’t bright red. That was how the French Army developed the “chapeau de brousse, modèle 1949.” They were trying to improve on the wide-brimmed Australian slouch hats worn by their WWII allies in Burma, those famous ones that are pinned up on one side. 

Be Careful What You Wish For

The Australians were absolute hell on wheels in both world wars, fighting alongside France on the western front, in North Africa, and in Burma. I can see why the French command looked to their tropical headgear expertise.

But symbols are tricky, and the French generals got their jobs by escaping from German POW camps and driving tanks for de Gaulle, not PR. Otherwise they might have thought it a bad omen to model the hat for their underfunded, half-hearted national effort in Vietnam on an icon of the infamous Gallipoli campaign, remembered as a national betrayal in which Britain abandoned the troops of its Australian dominion to fend for themselves against an underestimated enemy, unsupported by the mother country. The French Union troops who wore the hat–many of them Moroccan, Algerian, Senegalese, central and eastern European, Vietnamese, Lao, Cambodian, Tai, and Hmong–would be able to say similar things later.

Two future Banana Republic catalog favorites in a French colonial outpost near Hanoi. The man on the right is wearing the French Army bush hat. The seated officer is wearing the awesome chaussures de brousse that Banana Republic would later reproduce as “Foreign Legion boots.” (Jean-Philippe Charbonnier, 1951. CC)

For its time, the modèle 1949 was innovative. It took the old slouch hat–hardly a new invention–and tried making it from cotton. (The Ozzie versions are felt.) With plain old cotton, the hat endured rougher handling in the field than felt, which deserves to be maintained nicely.

Legionnaires in Indochina.

Of course, the hat still needed some stiffness, or else it would droop in your face. And there’s no point in trading out your bright red “shoot me” beret for a hat that blinds you. At least in berets you might see your assassin! 

So the French did something clever: they stiffened the cotton cloth with lots of extra seams. (We’ll see them do that again later.) Now you had an inexpensive semi-stiff cotton hat that you could shape like more expensive felt or leather. 

The incredible profusion of stitching is how you can tell the French bush hat from the boonie hats that Americans started improvising in Vietnam. See that fingerprint pattern on the crown of the hat? That’s what the French hats do to give body to the material (though it also adds weight). American boonie hats have a flat tops instead of the “dented dome” of the French hat.

Importantly, it was cheap: in the whole Indochina theater, France barely had two helicopters to rub together. They had lots of men to clothe but little materiel except what they could get from the Americans.

Americans know this is the South Vietnamese army’s “cowboy hat.” To store away the obnoxiously long neck strap, you could secure it on top of the hat. This pulled up both sides of the hat and made it look something like a cowboy hat. (Photo Carl Evers, 1967-68. CC)

After the fall of Dien Bien Phu, the French Army left remnants of its presence in Southeast Asian material culture, including their bush hat, for American arrivals to puzzle over years later. The hats were worn by South Vietnamese and Laotian forces (both of which originated as French colonial forces) and seemed to American incongruously like attempts at cowboy hats.

New inductees into the South Vietnamese army! They look thrilled.
Note their hats are turned up on the right, not the left (as on the Australian officer above). Like its French founders, the South Vietnamese army used French drill and slung the rifle on the right shoulder, rather than on the left as in British and Commonwealth drill.
If you’re American and you recognize the French bush hat, you probably know it from American war-time pictures of South Vietnamese soldiers. Other than a képi and an Inspector Clouseau mustache, it’s the French Army’s deepest imprint on the late modern American visual imaginaire.
American advisor talking to South Vietnamese Regional Forces soldiers, who are a virtual exhibit of the broad range of ARVN headwear. From left to right, the French bush hat, the ARVN fatigue cap, the ARVN camo fedora (yes!!), and a pith helmet. To that man’s right is someone wearing a beret.

Then Americans began to wear the French hats.

Pilots at US air base in Thailand during Vietnam war. The two on the right and left are Americans wearing the French bush hats. The Anzac in the middle is wearing the original slouch hat on which they’re based. (Military Times) (Why is his hat turned up on the right, not the left? From what I’ve read, units from different states had different drill and uniform standards, with some turning up the left, for the rifle, and others the right, for the “eyes right” command.)

USAF personnel based in Thailand adopted them as regional uniform items and tricked them out with unit bling. 

USAF in Thailand. (Military Times)

They’ve even made a comeback recently. The American 25th Fighter Squadron attended joint war games in Thailand, where their unit was based during the war, and they marked the occasion with retro “Saigon Cowboy” hats as a nod to tradition.

In addition to turning up both sides, many Americans in Thailand furthered the “cowboy” look by creasing down the crown all the way around (instead of denting it in a lengthwise furrow, as was common with the French.) The man in the foreground has done that with his; the man behind him has left his au naturel.

Once even the Americans got hip to French bush hats, it was time for France to move on to something cooler.

Supposedly the paratroop battalions found the standard bush hat too heavy and too clumsy in, well, actual bush; what’s the point of a bush hat if it keeps getting knocked off your head by branches when you’re whacking through the jungle? So the paratroopers developed their own, alternate jungle hat (stay tuned for that), which only they were allowed to wear.

I kind of wondered whether that wasn’t really the main point all along. The paratroopers were the big swinging you-know-whats of the French Army, and if they were vain enough to want their own proprietary, elite berets, even if it meant a bullet in the old melon, maybe they would just invent reasons why they absolutely, positively had to have special hats.

Turns out, I was wrong. First, the paratroopers were totally NOT shy about their vanity. They flat-out admitted they wanted special hats, pardieu!

Second, I tried this hat out myself and, though I really wanted to like it, I hated it too. First, it really is heavy. At 170g, it’s 70% heavier than a baseball cap or boonie hat. And that’s just its dry weight. Add rainwater and you’ll be wearing well over one pound on top of your head.

I’ll keep the nifty chèche, thanks, but this hat is pour les oiseaux.

And it sits annoyingly *high* on your head, with little purchase. Up there, it really is begging to come off in wind or foliage.

And though I don’t think it’s downright ugly, it’s at least “overbuilt.” I’d rather saw off the top of an umbrella, attach a chin strap, and be done with it. 

Again With the French Exceptionalism

If this were any other empire, that would be the end of the story. We would say, “They had a good run, they invented a couple hats that were decent for their time, and then they were left behind by history.” And that would be all for the clunky bush hat. But French colonial headwear wasn’t finished just yet! It just migrated, shape-shifted, and found a new role in…

… American consumerism! I won’t try to settle a weighty question like whether American commerce deserves to be called “Coca Cola colonialism” or “cultural imperialism.” I’ll just say that, where we must apologize for sins of cultural commission, omission, transmission, or superimposition, sometimes we were led astray. Specifically, France made us do it! 

For around 1981, as Ronald Reagan was settling into the White House, the old French bush hat found a new outpost of empire at a new store in San Francisco called Banana Republic. Originally just a couple of intellectuals with witty, hand-drawn catalog, they took exotic-looking military surplus, gave it a good wash and a really cool story, and made it a sensation. (Abandoned Republic has an awesome FB page and blog that is a kind of cultural archive and museum of the phenomenon that was Banana Republic in its zany startup years.)

Banana Republic’s catalog boasts the hat “100% water repellant cotton,” but that sounds as likely as “weight-loss birthday cake,” which is just the sort of cheek that you used to find in Banana Republic catalogs. (Photo courtesy of Abandoned Republic)

I checked, and the catalog was actually telling the truth about Jerusalem: none other than the Israeli army thought well enough of the French bush hat to adopt it. Maybe it was a sweetener in some arms negotiation: “I’ll make you deal, monsieur le ministre,” said a French official. “I’ll throw in a nuclear reactor with those Mirage fighter jets if you’ll take these clunky hats off our hands. Make your guys wear them.”

Because I can’t see what anyone wants with these antiquated hats. I tried to fob mine off on Lean Solid Wife. It looks fairly unisex, as Banana Republic advertised, and I hoped maybe madame would be intrigued by the “piece of Eighties material culture history” angle. But the instant I placed it on her head, she shook her head non: “Too heavy, too clumsy and unstable. And it’s kind of ugly.” I’m disappointed, but at least I’m vindicated!

Hats Of Defeat

A further installment in our series on French gear.

Some people deal better than others with losing.   

France doesn’t like to lose, but for a great power, it’s endured a tough couple of centuries. It lost its bid for global hegemony to Britain, and it lost Paris three times to Germans (twice before Germany was even a country). Then it lost Indochina and Algeria, and it was humiliated by the Suez Crisis. And yet, like a buccaneering tycoon, though France lost two empires, it bounced back both times.

In popular career books, they say you should embrace your failures. Learn from them, see them as stepping stones in your growth, and rather than feeling shame, look on them with fond compassion, like a photo of yourself as a cute, gap-toothed kid smiling to show where your front baby teeth fell out. And remember not just went wrong in those failures but also the things you did well, the good qualities you showed, the new skills that you used (however imperfectly) for the very first time.

In this, the French Army leads the way! Other militaries only like to talk about their signal victories—Midway, Kursk, Stalingrad, El Alamein—but the French Army famously makes cult out of the defeats where French troops stood out nevertheless by their fortitude: Waterloo, Camérone, Bazeilles, Dien Bien Phu.

The French Troupes de Marine commemorate their Alamo moment at the Battle of Sedan (1870), when a small unit of holdouts covered their parent unit’s retreat by sacrificing itself in Bazeilles at the “house of the last cartridges.” (Alphonse de Neuville, Les Dernières Cartouches, 1873.)

The French celebrate these noble defeats and commemorate them like other armies celebrate victories. Where the US Marines celebrate the Corps’ birthday with a ball each year, the French Foreign Legion celebrates Camerone Day, when a platoon sent to Mexico for stupid reasons was surrounded and made a suicidal banzai charge. (Some were spared by the Mexicans, though, in admiration for their bravery.)

This brings us to another instance of French exceptionalism: their attitude toward the hats that they wore in defeat. And for that, I must detour for a moment into (appropriately Gallic) literary theory.

The first casualty of war is the losing hat

Hats are symbols; they’re extra visible, and we wear them as as clothing first and only second as protection against sun, rain, and cold. 

Even in work uniforms, hats are mostly symbols. Why do McDonalds crew members wear a hat? As a branding symbol. Yes, it serves a hygienic need too, but so would a hair net. Why do police officers wear those brimmed, quasi-military hats? Why not golf visors or tiaras? Official symbolism. 

I won’t go “full semiotic” here, because literary theory is like men’s cologne—a little bit is usually too much. But one last point about symbols: they never stop taking on more meaning, like your leftover honey-glazed tofu keeps absorbing fridge odors. Today’s sharp-looking hat might smell like freezer-burned carrots tomorrow, and even your BPA-free Pyrex can’t protect it.

For practical purposes, this gives us the Lean Solid Dogs Law of Surplus Hats: if someone loses a war badly, it’s his hat that will suffer. The losing side will hate their uniform hat and drop it into a black hole ASAP because it conjures unhappy memories directly into their brain stems.

The Soviets went to Afghanistan with a pretty decent boonie hat.

Sure, it was heavy and featured “typical Soviet construction – meaning basic and barebones,” but it kept the sun off your head. And yes, the “afghanka” looks quaint, with its funny cone-headed top, but it scored alright in the (admittedly uncompetitive) category of “Soviet fashions.” It was definitely more dignified than this:

Soviet hat fashion prized qualities other than visual appeal. Or comfort. Or quality. Or simplicity of design.

But when the Soviets lost in Afghanistan, their populace was so demoralized and poisoned that their government paid with its life. But first, their hat paid for the sins of the government. The afghanka was pulled from service even before the last tank returned home, tainted by the USSR’s terminal ordeal.

A Soviet unit just returned from its tour in 1986. By this point the war had gone full quagmire, and linguistic historians believe this photo captured the last time that anyone with a St. Petersburg accent said the sentence, “I’m overjoyed to be back in Tajikistan!”

Of course, some “hats of defeat” were hated even before their surrounding politics went pear-shaped. The green baseball-style “field cap, hot weather” was hated by US Army troops even before they could mispronounce “Vietnam.” It made them sweat under its polyester material, having been categorized by the Pentagon as a “hot weather” cap only because it lacked ear flaps. But above all, it made them feel dorky.

IMHO, this hat would still have screamed, “Abandon all hope, draftees! We are SOOO out of our depth,” even if Gen. Westmoreland had been the love child of Joan of Arc with Sun Tzu.

Soldiers care how they look. They are young men, after all, and they’re carrying out a rite of passage, thousands of years old and extremely difficult, and important to the social “homework” of a new adult man: finding your place in male hierarchy and showing that you can be entrusted with responsibilities to other men and maybe to a woman too.

Developmentally, this is all HUGE, the stuff of myths and archetypes–matters like this are why cultures have symbols. So it’s small wonder that soldiers care how they look in their uniforms. In the darkest days of World War II, Stalin’s Red Army suffered terrible defeatism. So at Stalin’s personal order, they eliminated their infamously dowdy, shapeless, socialist uniforms that made every man equal in proletarian ugliness. From their grand imperial past, they resurrected smart uniforms, shoulder boards, medals, and ranks–all previously abolished by the Revolution. Soldiers’ spirits soared. They felt like men, heroes. From memoirs and letters home, we have abundant documentation of Red Army soldiers saying (and I’m paraphrasing): I feel like a million bucks! We even walk differently. We feel like real fighters now! We’re still as good as dead, but darnit, we feel like heroes now.

Now completely doomed WITH SHOULDER BOARDS!
(Photo courtesy of Za Rodinu)

So it was a big deal that the iconic Vietnam hat was hated by the guys wearing it, even before Vietnam was Vietnam. Ironically, the hat was actually chosen by the Pentagon because the old guys there because it seemed squared away and soldierly to the aging staff officers. (Apparently the Sixties had this thing called a “generation gap.”) Troops tried to make the hat less dumb by crushing the crown down on top of the head, even putting cardboard inside the front to keep it neat. But sometimes they were actually forced by their commanders to stop, even though Gen. Westmoreland himself wore it that way. Eventually the hat was so tainted by US failure in Vietnam that it was abandoned and replaced with the same hat that the Army wore in Korea(!).

But there should be no misunderstanding: the unpopular Vietnam hat was objectively ugly even when it was still a gleam in the eye of a hung-over RISD grad on their first day as a government fashion designer.

Embrace Your Failures, Double Down On Your Hats

In keeping with France’s age as a civilization, she regards highly the due place of tradition. So coupled with her healthy, mature attitude toward failures and setbacks, France lives out this appreciation of tradition in her headgear. Where other armies lose one little hopeless counter-insurgency and bury their hat in shame in the same closet as their teenage poetry journal, France rises from the canvas, forthrightly summarizes her lessons in a new marching song, and then throws her same old well-loved chapeau in the ring once more.

Next time, the hat that only a patriot could love: the Bigeard cap.

Nutria Brown

Part IV of our series South African on surplus gear for arid climates. Please find the previous parts here, here, and here.

In America, we’d see someone dressed head to toe in a brown uniform and guess “UPS delivery driver.” But if you put him in southern Africa, maybe with a gun as a hint, “browns” would connect him with the South African Defense Force (SADF), South Africa’s pre-1994 army.

The SADF stood out among Western-style militaries of the Cold War, differing from everyone else in little details. One was their unusual brown uniform, which now is coveted on the surplus market. South Africa began the Sixties dressed in impractical, smart-looking British-type uniforms but knowing they needed something they could move around and get dirty in. And by the end of the decade, the troepies were spending a lot of their time in the field, preparing for a conventional war against Soviet proxies but also running around in the bush looking for Chinese-backed guerrilla forces too.

So in 1971, they adopted what became their trademark, the “nutria brown” color. Nutria sounds like the brand-name for a hippy protein powder made from brewer’s yeast and algae, but it’s actually the name of a cute (but invasive) rodent. However, that maligned rodent had the honor of lending its name to some of the best surplus of the Seventies.

Why monochrome?

Earth tones conceal stuff incredibly well. In search and rescue, it’s shocking how effectively plain colors conceal people in nature. I’ve searched a pine forest next to a man in a light tan uniform, and he completely disappeared from view just 10 yards away in moderate foliage. That makes khaki a terrible field uniform for SAR—orange or red is the way to go—but if you want to vanish in a forest, you can get there in chinos, loafers, and a tan button-down.

With just a couple branches between you and a searcher, they will have trouble picking out your shape, criss-crossed by a couple lines, from the chaotic background clutter. They might also miss you even if you just stand under overhanging branches, provided you are crossed by a couple shadows of branches.

Of course, if you want to hide on purpose, then you’re even better off with a darker color. Armies experimented after the 1860s with dull grays, yellows, and greens so soldiers wouldn’t get them shot from afar by the new, high-powered ammunition. Over the next century, they progressed toward steadily darker hues. The Russians didn’t settle on one standard color, retaining a mix of yellows, greens, and browns that nevertheless all looked like they issued from some part of a baby. But everyone else converged on nearly the same color, just described with different names.

In American English, this is the color I’d label “khaki.” But in the British and French armies, they kept the name “khaki” even as the actual hue got darker and greener, to the point of being indistinguishable (to my eye) from what Americans called “olive green” and Germanic armies called “field gray” or “stone gray.”

British Commonwealth armies still called that color “khaki,” though it no longer matched its Urdu meaning of “soil-colored.” The Germanic armies all called theirs “field gray” (Feldgrau), and the Americans named theirs “olive green.”

Olive Green 107, the pukey color of *MASH*, Platoon, and everything else set in the US Army of the Korea and Vietnam eras.

Olive, gray, even (super-dark) khaki—all justifiable descriptions of pretty much the same, hard-to-define color. We do know one thing. It is officially Proven By Science that it’s the ugliest color in the world. When Australia ordered tobacco companies to redesign their cigarette packages so as to “minimize appeal,” government researchers identified this very color in experiments as the most morbid and depressing. The Australian olive lobby begged the officials not to call the villainous color “olive” and besmirch their fruit’s good name, so the government accommodated them and dubbed it “drab dark brown.”

What’s Hebrew for “If it ain’t broke…?” The IDF still wears solid OD green.

In tests, plain old olive drab (OD) camouflages people in a forest almost as effectively as a well-designed camo pattern. So olive is still the standard in tropical Venezuela and Cuba, temperate Austria, and the mixed terrain of India. And amazingly, it actually works well in a desert too! The Israelis found it worked there almost as well as purpose-made desert camo, reportedly, so the IDF still wears olive. Maybe olive really is the closest thing to a “universal camouflage!”

For a given environment, a solid earth tone gives up a little to the right camouflage pattern, but it finishes miles ahead of the wrong pattern. The US Army’s disastrous “UCP” made soldiers glow, owing to an extreme case of color merging or “blobbing out.” When you look at almost any pattern from a great distance, the variegated colors blend into a single color. For the UCP, which was adopted with zero testing(!), the “blobbing” started at ping pong distance and yielded a color like a lighthouse beacon.

South Africa had roughly the same idea. They needed a single uniform for forests and mountains and deserts, so they tried olive. But there was a twist: those varied southern African landscapes did share one commonality–they were all very dry. So when the South African army experimented in Namibia, olive was edged out by “nutria brown” in the parched landscape. (For the same landscape, the Kaiser’s short-lived colony of “South-West Africa” chose a lighter brown they called “sand color.” Probably not a coincidence.)

The French kept their “khaki green” tenue F1 until 2000. Other countries who hung on late to monochrome included China and Israel, as well as South Africa–curiously, all shared economic, military, and political peculiarities that made them global military oddballs. That is a subject for another day.

When South Africa adopted their signature nutria browns in 1971, most major armies were still uniformed in monochrome too, including the United States, the Soviet Union, China, France, and West Germany. But South Africa retained theirs longer than most, economically sapped by war and inflation. It is telling that, when finally adopting camouflage uniforms in 1993, the army’s chief felt he needed to justify the slight cost increase of just US $24 worth per uniform of his country’s falling currency.

For our purposes, South African nutria and other monochrome surplus is also attractively economical, even if we do enjoy a hard currency. It’s cheap and indestructible, and it’s extra versatile because, lacking a camo pattern, it doesn’t make you look like Mall Rambo. Even though that doesn’t matter when you’re out hiking and camping, afterward you might want to stop at the grocery store and not sow terror of a rebel attack on the frozen aisle.

“This is an act of revolutionary expropriation! I demand safe passage to Cuba and the release of all your freezer case’s single-serving containers of Haagen-Dasz!”

Becoming Durable With Tom “The Truth” Furman

“Most people are highly skilled at self-deception.”
–Tom “The Truth” Furman of Physical Strategies, at 60+

Successful people have a trusted someone who tells them truths that they’d rather avoid. When a conquering Roman general paraded in triumph, decked out as the god Jupiter, a veteran next to him would murmur in his ear, under the crowd’s cheers, “Remember you are mortal.” Modern generals and leaders employ a “red team” or some kind of “loyal opposition” to pick holes in their plans. 

This is because, as Orwell wrote, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” So sometimes I think master trainer Tom Furman’s greatest talent is just that he confronts me with truths that are good for me.

Yes, it runs deeper than that: he reads all the journals, attends the workshops, follows the new trends, and then filters them through his bullsh** detector that’s five decades thick. Sober people like Tom are the reason that I survived the early 2000s without severing my spinal cord or blowing tendons by following stupid trends like high-rep timed barbell snatches or back squats on a wobble board.

But above all, Tom keeps the truth the truth. I owe him a report every Monday on the week’s eating, exercise, weight, and waist. And when I delude myself about the tale of the tape, “Tom the Truth” tells me what I’m choosing not to know. 

If the most effective way to lie is to change definitions, Tom guards them from me. If the sneakiest way to subvert success is to move goalposts on the sly, Tom fixes them in concrete. The blue collar fighter from Pittsburgh tore up the “Everyone’s a Winner!” memo and crumbled it up between his thumb and pinky to train grip strength.

In a year of family trials, there was one huge joy too! Lean Solid Girl got promoted to Lean Solid Wife.

Hence I could have had no better coach during this past year of family troubles than Tom, to help me self-arrest before I slid down a mountain of travails and into a Himalayan crevasse of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Tom gently but firmly kept me pointed upward and didn’t entertain my self-accommodating illusions that maybe faeries were causing me mysteriously to hold water temporarily-for-months-at-a-time.

Now that I’ve climbed back out of the Valley of the Shadow, I’m still on track. Under Tom’s wholesome influence, I’ve regained lost ground and also shaken nagging mobility limitations and periodic joint issues too.

This Summer’s Game

This summer I’ve been ordered by the doctor to lay off serious training for a couple months following a small (but perfectly benign) surgery. I’m prohibited from anything to raise intra-abdominal pressure, which is tantamount to a prohibition against doing anything. 

That means no running, kettlebells, backpacks, pullups, presses, or punching bags. Barbells are banned; dumbbells are disallowed, except those tiny ones coated in neoprene. 

Athletically, this sounded worse than a jail sentence, since even in lockup I could maybe pump out hours of bodyweight convict workouts. Instead, it’s more like three months in a nursing home, shuffling slowly and doing water aerobics.

But you can make a game of most anything. After all, what are strictures except rules of a game that you haven’t invented yet? So this summer’s game has been, “Doing something, anything, to move around that won’t get me in trouble with the doctor. My score is total minutes per day. Bonus points if it improves something that I’ve neglected.”

To my surprise, this has been fun and productive! Aside from walking modest but growing distances, I’ve found ways to say occupied with light Indian clubs, dumbbells, and bands; rubber tubing to do I, T, Y, and W pulls to prehab the shoulders; modified pushup and crawling variations; the few stretches that don’t violate the surgeon’s rules; and easy static holds in one- and two-legged squat positions, up high with no abdominal bracing.

Particularly fun have been wall pushup variations to strengthen finger and forearm extensors. Whenever I get sore elbows, I’ve learned, it means I need to work those extensors, which are always too weak to match the flexors. 

Calorie Balance and Deficit

“If you want to tell people the truth,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”

To my great surprise, I’m staying in a small calorie deficit without trouble. I feared that I’d be consigned to the couch all summer, with no ruck on my back and a spoon in each hand. 

Tom had a simple preventive medicine for this: Eat less. Tom subscribes to the school of “Calories in, calories out. You can’t deny physics and chemistry, and you can’t outrun a donut.” It’s a simple truth, an unpopular one, and it survives perennial attempts at hand-waving circumvention. You have entered “The Tom Furman Zone.”

Fortunately, if you accept that an unwelcome truth is, well, true, life gets much simpler! When I had to get much less active and scale down my calorie intake, I learned that Tom really has been speaking the truth when he tells me, “You need less food than you think.” There’s plenty of utility in hacks like volumetrics, where you fill up on foods high in fiber and water content, but I always take a good idea too far. In my case, that looks like me compulsively eating horse-sized bulk meals out of with a family-sized salad bowl, trying to satisfy myself on sheer poundage. 

But when I have a normal, low level of activity, I’m okay eating normal (and measured) servings of food. (And for tracking food, Noom is a gift from the heavens. It makes logging and budgeting calories supremely easy.)

I’m even leaning vegetarian again, which is a balm to my conscience, and my body isn’t objecting. Maybe this is an upside of getting being lean and light, not carrying extra weight (fat or muscle), and going light on the exercise. 

Next stop on the Tom Train is to trim off a final six or seven pounds, two more inches of waist, and get to a good fighting weight in the 150s. (Call it 70kg and change.)

At that point, I’ll want to reward myself with something I hope to write about soon, the “Skinny Cat Challenge!”

Chat maigre: French for “lean, solid dog”

National Commando Training Center in Coullioure. Photo courtesy of Romain Mielcarek (http://www.guerres-influences.com/romain-mielcarek/)

The Cult of Light Infantry?

Here at Lean, Solid Dogs, we maintain a special interest in light infantry because we love to romp around the outdoors carrying heavy things. And there’s a whole profession dedicated to that! They’re called light infantry and they work for the government, which does research for them and gives it away for free. It also sells off their old gear almost as cheaply.

Of course, they’re not a perfect model for us. For the sake of joint health, no one should ruck more than 30 lbs. (14kg) habitually unless they make their living by carrying a mortar. And some of us need to unlearn some of the “push, push, push!” mentality. Nevertheless, lean solid dogs can pick up a lot from light infantry.

But first, a word from our sponsor … me!

What is light infantry? Roughly, they’re soldiers who walk a lot. They’re not armored, not mechanized. Maybe they catch a ride when possible, but they’re capable of transporting themselves and their gear around on foot. (Above, French Moroccan troops decamp from Hanoi in 1954.)

In the 20th century, light infantry seemed like a specialty mostly for East Asians: the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA), China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) worked stunning miracles, like Michael Jordan defying the laws of gravity and reinventing the game of basketball.

Even when I’m sitting at a desk, I’m writing a novel this year about the People’s Liberation Army, so I constantly have light infantry on the brain. When it overflows, I dump it out on this blog.

The Imperial Japanese Army’s staff would have loved more heavy equipment, but it was absolutely out of the question. They had the know-how in spades–a deep talent pool of engineers and military professionals–but they lacked requisites like manufacturing capacity, sealift, and oil and they knew it. The slender resources they did have, they wisely earmarked for the Navy and air arms, and that was that. PFC Yamada would get some puttees, a bolt-action rifle, and a really huge bayonet.

Those East Asian armies specialized in light infantry because they had to: It’s all they had. They couldn’t support highly mechanized armies with their limited industrial bases. The Japanese and the PLA rationalized their reliance on light infantry in ideology: superior courage, commitment, and the spirit of the bayonet would prevail over firepower and technology. They were helped by existing cultural ingredients–for example, the IJA taught conscripts to revere their bayonets as latter-day samurai swords–but they were making a virtue of necessity. Their armies would have liked to be heavier, but then, I’d like be taller. Too bad.

But the French Army is different. They chose their own “cult of light infantry” freely, despite having other options, because they love the light fighter as an idea.

The Feline Fighter

Wolves. Bears. Sharks. Tigers. Lions. Wildcats and hellcats. Falcons. “Screaming Eagles.” “Devil dogs.” How many badass animals have been adopted as names and similes for history’s warriors?

But domestic cats? How many armies psyche up the young heroes-in-training with thoughts of elegant Siamese cats? Languid Persians?

The Armée Francaise, that’s who! Go ahead, make your silly jokes! The Fighting Calicoes! The Battling Marmalades! Maybe a parachute regiment called “The Finicky Persians.” Or “Hell’s Turkish Angoras.” Oh yes, quel drôle!

Go ahead, make your silly jokes! Anyone who rocks this hat is clearly broadcasting, “I don’t care what you think.”

The French Army likes its soldiers agile, flexible, and nimble: in French, chats maigres, “skinny cats.” Not emaciated, of course, but rangy and optimized for endurance. And not lacking strength, to be sure–there are lots of ropes for you to climb, soldat de France, and pullups too! But excess muscle would weight you down, when we want you light and quick. In a word, feline!

That means no protein powder for you, légionnaire! It’s forbidden. In fact, not too much food for you either! In memoir accounts of new trainees in the Foreign Legion, being constantly hungry is almost as much of a trope as “march or die” in old movies. American servicemen who train with French units remark on how much running they do and their level of endurance. And among visiting French troops, a common refrain is to exclaim about the American troops’ huge breakfasts of eggs, potatoes, and sausage. 

The Foreign Legion has a reputation for devoting a lot of training time to ironing clothes and distance running. At the Legion’s annual half-marathon, winning times are about 80 minutes

Why this cult of the skinny cat? It’s what academics like me call “overdetermined,” which is short-hand for “lots of reasons, any one of which would have been enough.”

One is that France is drawn to the “cult of light forces” ideologically, writes Benoist Bihan, because it happens to fit well with France’s untidy heritage of mixed of aristocratic and republican ideals. On one hand, the French army drew most of its officers from old military families, some with traditions of service stretching from the ancien régime through the 20th century, that formed a sort of aristocratic caste. On the other hand, they served a republic, the birthplace of Enlightenment egalitarianism, officially hostile to class difference and aristocracy. You can’t fit just any ideal into the narrow middle ground on that Venn diagram. But you actually can fit the “quick, nimble light fighter!”

It fits OK with aristocratic heroism: The light infantry officer is a figure of daring, dash, and élan. His battle is won or lost by the wiles, daring, and fortitude of identifiable individuals, not a superpower’s vast, hemispheric system, where whole divisions are just components and the individual man counts for nothing except a nameless cog in a clanking machine.  In other words, in the light infantry officer’s war, there’s lots of room for conspicuous heroism. He may distinguish himself individually and re-inscribe his ancient family name with glory in the annals of French arms. Vive le roi! Vive l’empereur! Vive la France!

But also, the light infantryman’s heroism is open to any son of the Republic, irrespective of birth or even education. He need not be bred as a chevalier right from his gilded cradle, nor need he even spend his whole youth studying military science. Yes, a talented boy will be educated at the public expense at the military academy of Saint-Cyr if only he show a clever mind and firm spirit, but even that is not necessary. France’s greatest paratroop officer, the patron saint in the “cult of light forces,” Marcel Bigeard, rose from an ordinary soldat de deuxième classe with an 8th grade education! In the warfare of agility, daring, and maneuver it is enough for any French conscript to show resolution and aggressiveness. L’esprit de l’attaque! Vive la République!

In a word, goes the thinking, light infantry were satisfyingly French as few other options could be.

Add to this that the French Army has been doing this for two centuries. Napoleon knew a thing or two about maneuver warfare, and his famous light infantry chasseurs fought in Spain against the world’s first “guerillas.” So France failed against an agrarian irregular resistance before it was cool!

France’s 19th century African and Asian colonies have been called “a gigantic system of outdoor relief for army officers … designed to give them something to do.” Whatever the French Army thought they were accomplishing out there, they gained tons of experience at maneuvering light, nimble bodies of infantry and marines around vast spaces and tight spots. And along the way, they contributed a lot to the military art and science of light forces.

France was at the bleeding edge of things like rifle technology. The French Navy actually gets credit for this immediate predecessor to the first modern military bolt-action rifle (also French). They adopted this early bolt-action repeater that fed metal cartridges (also invented by…guess who!!).

Just as important, their officers were honing the subtle, soft skills of military diplomacy and local politics that turn out to be everything in what are now called “small wars.”

This points to an another important ingredient in the French cult of light infantry: unofficially, France had two parallel armies, a heavy one for the defense of Europe, and a light one for overseas, and the two grew apart culturally and eventually politically.

Even after the whole “collaborate with Nazis?” quarrel, the Army faced a dilemma with its overseas commitments. Like the British Army, they were tied down in Europe with NATO and struggled to protect their overseas colonies, but the French Army had it worse: they were constrained by a French law that forbade deploying French conscripts (i.e. most of the army) outside of France or Algeria. For colonial garrisons—in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, the Pacific, South America, and all over Africa—they were limited to using units from the Foreign Legion, regular units of French professionals, and the Troupes coloniales. (These sound like “indigenous forces,” but not really: the enlisted ranks were about half Arab, African, or Asian and half French volunteers). Diverse in origins and unit designators, what these overseas forces had in common was that they were light fighters. And collectively, these overseas forces came to feel unsupported and estranged, like the Breakfast Club of the French Army, and developed an “outsider” identity as square pegs, the misunderstood streetfighting punks to the rich preppies of Big Army and its heavy divisions back in Europe. From their perspective, these colonial paratroopers and legionnaires were doing France’s actual gutter fighting, unloved and half-disavowed by Paris and the respectable general staff officers who enjoyed clean kepis, starched tablecloths, and sherry with dinner. They fought dirty little wars in dirty places with dirty tactics, but that was how they got results—c’est la guerre.   

Just imagine Jack Nicholson with a képi and a cigarette doing the scene in French and you’ve got the idea.

The dynamic is dramatized in Jean Lartéguy’s novel The Centurions (1960), in which paratroop officers in Vietnam and Algeria come feel more kinship with their revolutionary enemies than their estranged countrymen in anti-military France and even from the army’s own respectable but clueless mainstream. Taking seriously the Maoist doctrine that war is a political struggle much more than a military one, they organize themselves in effect as a radical Maoist insurgency and influence French and Algerian politics in their own right. In real life, some of the paratroop officers then attempted a putsch in 1961, briefly seizing control of Algiers in hopes of thwarting Algerian independence. (Lartéguy wrote that up in a hasty sequel, the aptly named Praetorians.)

Bigeard was the (very obvious) model for characters in both the left-leaning film The Battle of Algiers (dir. Gillo Pontecorvo,1966) and Jean Lartéguy’s rightist novel The Centurions (1960).

The icon of these real and fictional paratroopers was the aforementioned Marcel Bigeard, the working class conscript who rose to general and later Minister of Defense. If the “skinny cat” is the spirit animal of the French light fighter, Bigeard was their their exemplar, prophet, and patron saint. He preached a holy trinity that became paratrooper gospel and a French Army mantra: “flexible, feline, and mobile” (souple, félin et manœuvrier). The skinny cat also had nine lives in each sweaty running shoe. His whole resume of tough guy stuff is way too long, so I’ll skip all of WWII and his first eight years in Vietnam (!) and just mention that he parachuted into Dien Bien Phu twice, suffered 90% losses in his battalion, survived the subsequent death march and prison camp (which killed another 50%), and just a couple years later was shot in the chest in Algeria. Three months after that, he was jogging(!!) and was shot in the chest twice more in a failed attempt at assassination. (He kept working too, chest wounds be damned.)

Chest wound? Pas de probléme–that’s no reason to take medical leave. There’ll be rest enough in the grave! Keep up the old morning run (in French, le footing) and don’t make excuses every time you’re shot by assassins.

There are even more reasons for the French cult of the “skinny cat”–see, I told you this was overdetermined–but that is a subject for another day. I grow tired, and I haven’t even been shot once today!

For now, let it be known henceforth that there are no “dog people” and “cat people.” The lean, solid dog shall lie down with the skinny cat, and the beasts from the wild / Shall be lit by a child / And all do bear walks and lizard crawls.

“Attention, Walmart Shoppers: You Already Have a Prize-Winning Physique For 1900”

Part II of “Before Buff.” (Please find Part I here.)

Bare-knuckle champ John L. Sullivan, gushed over by sports writers as a “beautiful specimen of manhood” on account of his plump good health and energy. (However, he often “took ill” with a pathogen transmitted in oak barrels that disparately afflicted the Irish community.)

You travel back to 1900 and ask Americans, “Show me your most splendid specimen of manhood!” Beaming, they present John L. Sullivan, the world’s heavyweight boxing champion. “Behold!” they exclaim, beaming. “The newspapers proclaim him ‘the physical superior of all men!’”

Stripped to the waist, you reckon, the Gilded Age’s greatest GigaChad and physique star would tie for fourth place in a beauty contest for Walmart shoppers at the superstore in Fort Wayne.

What excites men’s admiration, you see, is his energy–he exudes vigor and hardihood like a scentless musk. It’s contagious. He makes you feel sanguine and strong! Again you consider taking up wet shaving, with a strop and a horsehair brush.

*          *          *          *

Around 1900, America’s muscle men were boxers and wrestlers. Americans didn’t yet lift barbells and dumbbells, which were bleeding-edge imports from Germany, the ground zero and mecca for “heavy gymnastics.”  

Outside of German enclaves, few Americans even had access to gymnastic apparatus or coaching, which was in German anyway. (Sorry, kein Englisch!)

For rough-and-tumble fun, Americans took after the British cousins, who enjoyed wrestling and led the world in pugilism. So when they talked of “fine athletic physiques,” they thought of wrestlers and boxers.

And what kind of physical development did wrestling and boxing create? Well first we have to distinguish look from feel from ability.

“Um, I’m more of, like, a tactile learner?”

It’s a funny thing about men: In my experience, when you hug a dude, you have no idea what’s coming. He might feel like he’s carved out of wood, made of ground beef, or big as two gorillas. Sometimes you put your arm around a lanky guy and he feels like a washer-drier combo wearing a t-shirt. (Straight women, gay men, massage therapists: am I right about this?)

For some reason, it’s hard to know what any given man is “made of” until you clap hands on him. Trainer Rory Miller writes somewhere about his first tussle as a young corrections officer with an intimidating inmate. The guy looked tough as a bowl of razors, but when Miller grabbed him, “the guy felt like he was made out of cheese.” Beneath appearances, the man was crumbling from a lifetime of drugs and hard living and he’d been all hollowed out.

As a lousy high school wrestler, I wrestled a kid from the neighboring industrial town whose arms looked no different from mine, but they felt like steel cables. He pushed me so hard that I tumbled into the wall. If we’d been cartoon characters, I would have flown right through it and left a boy-shaped hole.

Competition kettlebells are color-coded by weight. Since I’m habituated, I feel their different weights in my body with a casual look. In fact, I’m straining in my midsection because the left side of the image “weighs” three times too much for the right side. Apparently my body thinks the picture will collapse if I don’t brace and hold it up with my eyes!

In English the word physique skews visual. We borrowed it from French, the language of Descartes, where it just meant “the body, as opposed to the soul.” But in English it connotes “how fit a body looks.

But I’ll bet that, before modern people got our brains rewired as image-sophisticates, when people did more physical labor, they felt a physique as much as saw it. If not by actually touching it, I bet they “felt” with their eyes. (Think of the way you can look at sandpaper or ice cubes and feel their texture in your fingers.)

I think we need a word for what a thing visually feels like. Heck, I’m inventing that word right now: I’m calling it “look-feel.”

So after just a little first-hand trauma experience, you too may “look-feel” what I look-feel in this wrestler’s photo: me getting double-legged and dumped on the ground. Because as an under-athletic 14-year old, this sight was often followed by the rapid acceleration of my butt toward the mat, hard enough to crater it.

“At sparring tonight, I ate so many jabs, I’m not hungry for dinner! Ba-dum-bum, tss!”

I’ve only sparred in boxing gloves a tiny bit, but I cover myself worse than a blind man addicted to codeine. That’s enough operant conditioning that I see this other picture and feel my left eye stinging. Seriously, I can feel the disinfectant from his glove in my cornea right now, because I backstop a lot of light jabs with my face.

Some guys my same size and age can clinch me casually and I’ll feel like I’m being rag-dolled by a chimpanzee. But when I clinch my teacher back, he feels absurdly wide, like an inverted pyramid that you can’t get your arms round.

Fistic philosopher and inverted pyramid Jason Korol at the Greenville Academy of Martial Arts.

So around 1900, I’m guessing, men rough-housed more than enough to look at these boxers and wrestlers and light up with kinesthetic memories right down in their brain stems.

As for “physique,” i.e. buffness, they ran the gamut from fatback to beef jerky, though not too much prime rib. That is, there were more plump guys and wiry guys than buff ones. There are lots of reasons, and they’re all highly instructive.

Buffness: The Anatomy of a Rare Bird

What ingredients make for a buff physique? It’s a very specific formula of just two ingredients:

buffness = muscular hypertrophy + low bodyfat

It’s tricky to combine the two. For muscular size (hypertrophy), your body must build tissue up, but for leanness, it must pare tissue down. Your body can’t do either one without some effort, and doing both together is much harder.

When does buffness help a lot athletically? Only in those few events that reward high endurance right around the anaerobic threshold and high “relative strength” in the whole body. In short, you benefit from a jacked physique in sports where you must (1) outmuscle somebody, (2) at a fast pace, (3) using all the big muscle groups, (4) for about 2-5 minutes, (5) at a low bodyweight.

In other words, certain gymnastic events (e.g. rings and pommel horse) and some combat sports, especially modern wrestling and (to a lesser extent) modern boxing.

Tyson’s strategy called for short, sharp fights. His movement style–quick lateral shifts, turning blows that started down in his toes–capitalized on “relative strength” (i.e. the most force for the least bodyweight). His tactics–essentially “massed artillery from a broad front”–required huge anaerobic endurance. And often his high tempo could end a contest within a couple rounds. To top it off, Tyson was shorter than other heavyweights, so he looked extra broad-shouldered. Raytheon couldn’t engineer a boxer better designed to make use of the traits that create the jacked and shredded look.

Even then, there are still plenty of variables. As fighters say, “styles make fights,” and some athletes’ styles and game plans benefit more than others from the jacked athlete’s capacity to a unleash few short minutes of Tasmanian devil. Muscly Mike Tyson excelled at terrifying power output that KO’d people in the first round or two. That’s our formula, right there. But Muhammad Ali frequently fought for an hour and his physique matched his style: light for his weight class and height, with no use for excess muscle, because it’s exhausting to dance on your toes in tropical heat for an hour. The worst thing would be to add on the equivalent of a weighted vest. So it’s not even all boxers who gain by being jacked. Tyson was like “the perfect storm” that way.

Weightier still are your sport’s rules. Brazilian jiu-jitsu’s rule set doesn’t reward power and strength as much as wrestling’s rules, so BJJ players sensibly devote less training to them and are less jacked. Sumo rules reward huge bodyweight and absolute strength, and they don’t incentivize even short-term endurance, so sumo physiques reflect that.

And as it happened, around 1900, wrestling and boxing followed pre-modern rules that selected less for the peculiar combo of attributes that make men look jacked.

Wrestling grows more muscle than boxing, as a rule. It generates more power (i.e. foot-pounds per unit of time) and more time under tension, and therefore more hypertrophy. In other words, boxers throw hands, but wrestlers throw bodies, and that makes bigger muscles.

Wrestling champion George Hackenschmidt adopted dumbbells and barbells early. Nowadays he’s remembered less as a wrestling star than as a pioneering ironhead.
For building big muscles, wrestling is missing one huge factor: squatting. Despite tons of posterior chain work (think “deadlift”), the activity of wrestling doesn’t much mimic the king of whole-body hypertrophy, the heavy back squat. In 1900, no one trained heavy barbell squats much, neither wrestlers nor even weightlifters, and that helped limit athletes’ muscle size. (The limiting factor was just squat stands, like the ones above. To squat a heavy barbell, you must get under the bar somehow. After some handy ironhead invented special furniture for that purpose, people started back-squatting and thighs, hips, waists, and chests swelled like sausages!

However, a century ago, wrestling matches lasted far longer than under modern rules. In the 1896 Olympics, the final bout lasted 40 minutes, was suspended at nightfall, and continued the following day. At the 1912 Olympics, two middleweights set an unusual record when their match dragged on nearly 12 hours! And the light heavyweight finalists lasted nine hours with no winner and both got sent home with silver medals.

If you train for events lasting even 15 minutes, you’re already well past the sweet spot for the fickle, elusive combination of mass and leanness. Don’t fret, you can still rock a great mankini, but face it: you’re an aerobic athlete.

Never mind the bodice. This is more intrinsically hypertrophic than punching.

As an activity, boxing stimulates less muscle growth than wrestling. Once again, think of it as “throwing hands vs. throwing bodies.” I’ll skip the meathead physics and physiology, but it’s the same reason you can’t grow huge biceps throwing javelins or baseballs, things of scant heft that fly away too fast to load all your strength into them. To throw them fast, you depend WAY less on muscle than on speed and coordination. In boxing, you’re slinging just 16oz. of leather (450g). Add the weight of your hands themselves and that’s still 50 times less than an ice dancer doing one of those overhead crotch lifts. Don’t get me wrong, boxing blowtorches the lungs and tires the muscles! But in terms of hypertrophy, you’re basically in Jazzercise class.

Hands low to attack and protect the solar plexus. Posture upright to guard against headlocks and rabbit punches. (And eye gouges. They weren’t allowed, but they still happened.)

Furthermore, old-time boxers fought under older rules that slowed down the action and didn’t favor the tornado-like attributes of a buff physique.

To begin with, prize fighters fought without time limits. They also fought without gloves, which meant they actually had to slow way down. They couldn’t throw many hard head shots, lest they break their unprotected hands on somebody’s dome.

So instead of head-hunting, they went for the body. The old-time prize fighter wore you down slowly, in a long stalking match. He might beat on your arms, head-lock or hip toss you (legally!), and whale on soft targets until you tired and ached enough to expose your solar plexus carelessly. And then THUMP!

Against a competent opponent, such a bout was a long, tiring grind. In his 1889 title defense, John L. Sullivan savaged his rival handily in 100-degree heat, but it still took over two hours. That was only a little longer than average.

We’ll speak again of Sullivan, the “beautiful specimen of manhood” who looks to our Instagram brains like an East German factory manager enjoying the beach in exotic Poland. Because believe it or not, his training methods will make you wish you were a bare-knuckle prize-fighter!