“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.