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.

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.

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!

Sherpas of the Desert: How South Africa Mastered Rucking In Dry Heat

Here at Lean, Solid Dogs, we think a lot about backpacking in hot, arid landscapes, and we’re always seeking wisdom for dry heat from neglected corners of world.

Why? Because of a cosmic joke. Even though my ancestors and I lived in foggy, damp, northerly climes ever since hominids left Africa, fate has resettled me in the bone dry, scorching hot western US interior. My genes think we’re wearing bear skins in a German forest, but my ass is cooking in sun-baked chaparral. 

Lean Solid Girl says I’m really a springer spaniel. If stuck indoors, I chew on the woodwork. Better to have me wrecking things outdoors.

But what am I going to do, waste my life playing video games in the A/C? Hell no, I must romp around outdoors—rucking is not optional for me.

So I learn from people with experience in hot savannas and arid hills. Especially relative late-comers who adapted successfully. Americans and Brits have learned a lot about deserts in the last 80 years. But we also have some other teachers out there too, who have worked within their own distinct traditions.

Certainly Israel qualifies. Half of their country is desert. ‘Nuff said. Besides, despite close ties with the US, the Israeli army is absolutely unique in many ways and the very opposite of an epigone of any foreign military advisors

Then comes France. Though the Land of the Gauls is not a desert environment, since Napoleon’s time French troops have romped very actively around North Africa, and even today they are intimately involved in Djibouti and Chad. With a distinct military tradition of her own, France diverged from Anglo-American practice almost as sharply as it is possible for a Western European country to do. (OK, Switzerland and Sweden diverged even more, but they are not exactly princes of the desert.) And France invented the awesome, light canvas boots that Israel later adopted!


China excels in that old Second World genius for “low cost, high concept” design. On their long border with Mongolia, for example, troops traded their vehicles for camels. In a featureless landscape plagued by sandstorms, drivers have trouble seeing roads, but the camels have an unerring internal compass.

And the Chinese can probably offer lessons about desert operations. Their military interest in “the Great Northwest” (e.g. Xinjiang) and Inner Mongolia goes back several continuous centuries, and the PLA has been upgrading its desert forces. And it exemplifies a lot of the qualities that make for ingenuity, like outsider independence. 

And then there’s … South Africa?

I never associated South Africa with “desert warfare”—a phrase that conjures images of T.E. Lawrence with Bedouins and scimitars in the shifting Arabian sands. But South Africa includes three deserts and plenty of other arid terrain that many groups have trekked and fought over. Moreover, in the 20thcentury alone, South Africans found themselves fighting the Boer War, both World Wars, the Rhodesian Bush War, the Mozambican Civil War, the Natal Civil War, and the South African Border War (plus some others) and operated on desert/arid terrain in the Cape, Natal, Botswana, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, and Namibia, and also in Egypt and Libya against the Axis. 

The South African Defense Force (SADF) in Namibia, in the last of the great East-West proxy wars. This is also what it looks like a stone’s throw over my back fence.

Those are some dry places, my friends. South Africa itself gets only half the global average of rainfall, and the main theater for the Border War, Namibia, is the driest country in sub-Saharan Africa.

Not the Anglosphere. Only one South African in 10 speaks English as their first language. For most, it’s Zulu, Xhosa, or Afrikaans, or another of their eleven (!!) official languages. The culture of the SADF was overwhelmingly Afrikaans, not English.

Even better for us, South Africa remained unique. It never assimilated much into the Anglosphere (at least not for a British dominion) and because it was ostracized for much of the Cold War, it was left to innovate in relative seclusion.

And it did so among a shocking variety of influences: the SADF itself had a British heritage institutionally, but culturally it was overwhelmingly Afrikaans. Though mostly white, it also accepted non-white volunteers. The SADF interacted with its counterparts in Rhodesia and Israel, and it had some support from the US. And it operated in a theater crowded with more players than a Bollywood dance number: not just the immediate neighbors–Angolans, Namibians, Zambians, and Mozambicans–but also their foreign sponsors: the Soviet Union, Cuba, East Germany, China, and North Korea. At one point the SADF even fought head to head against a division-strength Cuban enemy.

That meant that Seventies and Eighties southern Africa became a kind of melting pot and R&D lab for many of the features of 21st-century “small wars” and insurgencies: the rise of roadside bombs; the drawing in of foreign volunteers; the high importance of informants and police work; three-sided wars with multiple insurgencies who also fought each other. South Africa and neighboring Rhodesia became the early experts in counterinsurgency, developing the “fireforce” concept and new vehicles for traveling vast distances with little in the way of secure roads. Mine-resistant troop carriers that can thwart IEDs? South Africa invented those. All those new tanks-on-wheels? South Africa has done that for decades.

Today’s US mine-resistant vehicles are descended from the South African Buffel (“Buffalo”). Happily, my town is largely free of mines so I drive a Honda.

And we care about this … why?

Like the American military after the Cold War, the SADF of 1980 was orienting itself more to the desert. Where before they thought of themselves as a conventional mechanized army defending against Soviet-style armored formations, now their enemies were increasingly conducting a Maoist insurgency along their long borders, and that meant foot-mobile desert warfare.

Sorry for the history lesson. I’m a professor by trade…

None of this would matter to us at Lean Solid Dogs, where we just ruck and rarely hit IEDs or parachute into gunfights, except for one pivotal trick of fate. South Africa was unique in a very consequential way: They could not rely on air power so they had to start walking a lot.

See, other countries in a predicament like South Africa’s, outnumbered and isolated among hostile neighbors, all do the same thing: they rely on their aircraft. The French did it in Indochina. Israel did it in the Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War, and the Americans in Vietnam, and the Soviet and Western forces again in Afghanistan. Since I don’t have a helicopter, that doesn’t do anything for me.

But unlike those others, South Africa could barely supply its aging air force with spare parts because of the UN embargo, so they flew very sparingly. Lacking the plentiful air support of other Western-style armies, they were forced to compensate with very, very long foot patrols, in dry country under a bright sun.

Paratroopers might walk a parched, sandy Namibian or Angolan landscape for a week or more, carrying all their necessities on their backs. AJ Venter describes 7- to 11-day patrols in Ovamboland (northern Namibia), walking 12+ hours per day in sand and packing about 40kg (88 lbs.). Granger Korff writes of similar patrols in Angola lasting for several weeks with resupply only every five days.

The SADF adapted impressively to this unexpected new reality and changed out a lot of its “soldier systems,” the kit for the individual guys.

For our purposes, what they did was to figure out the best systems for their guys to carry stuff on their bodies. With a special view to arid climates. What Sherpas are to high altitude, the SADF made themselves to dry heat.

They proudly filched ideas from both sides of the Iron Curtain, and they invented another so outlandish that it became a science fiction icon.

This is the story of South Africa’s “Pattern 83,” and this is the subject of our new series. Watch this space.

The Wisdom of Our Fathers (pt. 2): French Surplus Shorts

These guys aren’t wearing short shorts because the weather is hot. They’re the only way to guarantee complete freedom of movement for your thighs.

Here at Lean, Solid Dogs, we have previously lamented the problem of finding pants that do not bind active, thick, “plus-sized thighs.” When buying pants off the rack, unless you are shopping for BDUs, then often you must choose between too much room in the waist and not enough room in the thighs.

Part of our continuing series on “The Je Ne Sais Quoi of French Surplus.”

But it was not always thus. Another, better way was once known to our hardier, more vigorous, manlier forefathers: short shorts. Thirty to forty years ago, when men had over twice the grip strength and sperm count of men today, men had bigger thighs and had the good sense not to cover them with baggy, oversized shorts. It was understood that the proper length of shorts was roughly like so:

If you wear shorts that stop above the swell of your thighs, they can’t bind your thighs, even if they get wet, and no matter how big your thighs are.

Eighties-era F1 shorts. Note the GAO shirt and Palladium boots as well. Illustration by Kevin Lyles, in M. Windrow & W. Braby, French Foreign Legion Paratroops (1985), reproduced by kind permission of Osprey Publishing (London).

This truth was once known to every man in America and informed the design of basketball shorts, wrestling and weightlifting singlets, and military shorts like UDTs and ranger panties.

However, practical is not always presentable. The shorts that work great in a hot yoga class can get you the wrong sort of attention on the street (especially if you’re near sketchy public men’s rooms in municipal parks). You will need something just a little longer if you don’t want to be mistaken for a pride marcher or a catamite.

If you are a thickly thighed outdoorsman who gravitates to cheap surplus gear, you already have ample reason to be thankful to France. With its “almost Juche-like self-reliance” in design and “riens a foudre” (“zero f***s given”) attitude of indifference, France was unafraid to try ideas that looked weird. That’s how we got the GAO shirt, the most underrated hot weather garment in existence, and the stupendously light but tough “bush shoes.”

But wait, because only now do we come to the greatest of France’s gifts. Voilà! The “F1” tropical/desert shorts! These are truly the perfect “dual-purpose” shorts for athletic use and social wear. They are equally at home rucking around in the desert propping up a neo-colonial strongman regime and making droll conversation at the yacht club.

What is so great about F1 shorts? First, they keep you cool. With a 4″ inseam, they are the perfect length: just long enough to keep your thighs from rubbing each other raw when you run, but short enough to vent body heat without looking like a banana hammock.

You can get away with a lot on a European beach, but in the more puritanical US, you can only go so short without creating a spectacle. The F1 shorts snuggle up to that line without crossing it.

Second, they are tough. I have surplus pairs made over 30 years ago, and they still look ageless. And though hard to find in the US, if you’re persistent you can find them for $20. And being a plain OD serge herringbone, they do not look military. You can wear them in polite company and not look like a Three Percenter.

Becoming Durable with Tom Furman (Part I)

“I want to be Tom Furman.” I did not so much think that thought as hear it, as if from a disembodied voice, midway through a 100-pullup marathon. This eruption from my unconscious came as a surprise—I’d only met Tom once and communicated with him a few times over the years. But it was incontrovertibly wise

I needed some help, because I had lost the ability to coach myself. Lawyers say that “anyone who represents himself has a fool for a client,” and even the venerable Coach Dan John says that the same thing applies to conditioning. We have blind spots, we deceive ourselves about our weaknesses, and we avoid certain things that we know would be good for us. As Tom says, “Most people are highly skilled at self-deception.” Me, I lost ground last fall after the Star Courses, and I couldn’t fix myself. For a year I’d been getting stiff, inflamed, painful, and chubby, and nothing in my usual toolbox could reverse it. 

I thought of Tom Furman because he’s the master of the good athletic attributes that I didn’t have: graceful mobility, joint health, and ageless leanness. 

Though Tom is best known now among the fitness cognoscenti for bodyweight fitness books like Armor of War, he emerged from a martial arts background. In fact, I first knew of him as a practitioner of the rare (and scary) Indonesian art of silat. (Think dirty boxing and stand-up grappling, sometimes with blades.) I’ve always thought of him as “Knife Gumby,” the flexible, springy-strong stabby guy.

And it’s because of that background—wrestling and boxing and blades, not barbells and bodybuilding—that Tom thinks about fitness differently from anybody else in my world. He bears the stamp of a place and time where physical culture had more to do with tangling with a resisting opponent than repping an iron weight. Less Ronnie Coleman and Andy Bolton, more Jack Dempsey and Dan Gable.

A Physical Culturist From a Different World

The past is a foreign country, and that’s not just true of politics and philosophy but physical culture too. Other epochs and cultures did physical culture totally differently from us because they cared about other activities and attributes. In Persia, it was wrestlers who developed that country’s (extremely cool) local brand of physical culture. Ditto for India. Accordingly, their traditional physical culture systems feature lots of high-rep pushup and squat variations and club swinging meant less for strength and size than for endurance, flexibility, and joint integrity. 

In China, traditional physical culture was linked closely with martial artists who had little interest in a “power and bulk” approach to conditioning (and did not have the food supply to support one anyway). As alternatives to muscular size, they developed sophisticated tricks for milking extra strength and hitting power out of good coordination and breath control. These martial artists also expected to keep practicing actively into old age, and they got to be expert in caring for joints and developing tendon and ligament strength.

In Europe and America during the “waxed moustache and unitard” days at the turn of the 20th century, the physical culturists were a mix of wrestlers and traveling strongmen who exhibited feats of strength for audiences of laborers who could fully appreciate a powerhouse who could lift a barrel overhead one-handed or swing an anvil by the horn. There seem to have been a lot of one-rep feats of grip strength, stabilizer strength, and one-arm strength. 

In Tom’s case, as a teenager in western Pennsylvania in the early Seventies, physical training was still something that happened on your wrestling team or in the local boxing gym, where Tom spent his teens learning silat and contact sparring. Guys added some simple barbell routines out of old issues of Strength and Health, but weights were just a side dish, not the main course. And most importantly, the bodybuilding movement had not yet surged forth from southern California and conquered the rest of the country.

Into the Zone

The one time I met Tom, we were at an Outback Steakhouse in Kentucky (long story), where he amazed me by ordering a modest New York strip steak and … nothing else, except for some steamed vegetables. I was jowls-deep in a baked potato that was swimming in butter, and I was probably at least considering the Triple-Layer Carrot Cake too. And the one other thing I knew about Tom was that he had been an early adopter of the work of Dr. Udo Erasmus, the break-through prophet of good fats. So I supposed that Tom would put me right back on one of the ketogenic diets that formerly worked so well for me. 

Nope! I was stunned that the regimen Tom recommended for me is … The Zone!!!!! I could only have been more surprised if he’d told me to adopt the macrobiotic diet or subsist on green eggs and ham. I vaguely remembered Barry Sears’ book The Zone from the late Nineties, when my sister did it. I remember her eating revolting-looking snacks cottage cheese with mandarin orange slices and olive oil. But she was mighty lean, and I’ll try anything once, so I plunged right in.

Stripped down to its basics, The Zone involves always eating meals that include all three big macronutrients: protein, fat, and carbs. So for example, no sweet potato and olive oil (carbs and fat) without maybe some chicken or lamb. And for a ketophile like me, no eggs and avocado (protein and fat) without some carbs too, like maybe berries or melon. 

The Zone also gives you a handy mechanism for controlling your food intake without actually tallying calories. Instead you just track “blocks”: one block of protein is 7g and corresponds to about an ounce of lean meat or poultry, or 1.5oz of fish. A block of fat (just 1.5g) is very small, just 3 almonds or a third of a teaspoon of oil. And a carb block (9g) could be anything from a tablespoon of raisins to half an apple, a cup of strawberries, or 3 cups of broccoli or cabbage, or 10 cups (!!) of romaine. 

At each meal, I eat five blocks of each macro. Needless to say, I’ve never eaten so much fiber in my life. And that’s coming from a guy who used to eat his dinner salads out of a 2-gallon, family-sized serving bowl. Even though the Zone’s creator, Barry Sears, claimed that there was a special magic in his designated macronutrient ratio, it might just be that he codified a really easy-to-follow way to keep my portions under control (which has always been my weakness) while loading up with enough lean protein and fibrous bulk to satiate even a food-addicted ex-powerlifter.

In our next installment, Tom’s workout prescriptions. Until then, you might have a look some of his books or some of his recent articles.

With my shield or on it

Ten years ago, a young entrepreneur with a struggling backpack company wanted publicity photos of real people using his backpacks in rough-and-tumble ways. So he held the first-ever GORUCK Challenge, in which 20 or so hooah weirdos paid good money to sign up for an event of unknown distance carrying backpacks of bricks punctuated by PT beatdowns at the hands of an ex-Green Beret.

The famous “sugar cookie.” Soak yourself and then coat your body in sand so that no skin is visible. Remember to get your face!

People loved the Challenge so much that they wanted more, and entrepreneur and SF vet Jason McCarthy realized that he wasn’t so much in the business of making tough rucksacks as tough ruck beatdown events.

Tomorrow we celebrate the 10th anniversary of Class 001. I don’t know how ready I am. I’ve rucked little in the last two months while healing an injury, and though I’ve been blazing away on the kettlebells in the meantime, I didn’t really know where my aerobic base is right now.

Here’s what I do know:

  • I’m waaaaaay more experienced now than at my first awesome GORUCK event two years ago. I’ve troubleshot my gear, made friends with the horror of hypothermia, and learned that the emotional/physical lows are soon followed by great highs.
  • I’ve packed enough peanut butter M&Ms, cashews, and caffeine for a one-man ruck rampage through six counties.
  • I have great mentors and advisors: Sgt. Šileika, Scott, Griff, I’m looking at you.
  • And there’s no substitute on earth for this kind of camaraderie.

And finally, I know that I won’t quit. I’ll be back tomorrow, with my shield or on it!