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!

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.

Captain America and the Welfare Check

Being part 2 of my field notes from a glorious 48 hours with my boots on. (Find part 1 here.)

The anguish of my unrecognized comic genius: At one point, the command post radioed our group to make sure that we hadn’t eloped with sasquatches or been eaten by raccoons. In the terse language of the Incident Command System, this came out as “Team Twelve: welfare check?” I wanted to drawl, “Thank you kindly, but we work for a living.” I’m pretty sure they weren’t in a mood for my mirth on a command channel, so I kept the fun to myself. But it hurts to be blessed with talent like mine and not be able to share it with the world. One day… One day search base will see me for the genius that I am!!

By odd coincidence, the searcher next to me was a map-loving Russian emigré from Siberia.

Map-reading and cognitive load: Since childhood I’ve loved maps, an unsurprising love for an intellectual, someone who interacts with the world more through concept and abstraction than through his moment-to-moment senses. When you read a map, you encounter the earth through a sort of “God’s-eye view,” taking in at once a panoply of information about the surroundings that far exceed what any one observer on the ground can see. But being a basically unobservant person, I must work hard to reconcile what I see on a map with what my eyes see. If I am in a canyon surrounded by distinctive ridgelines and peaks, then in principle I should be able to find those formations represented on a topographic map and thus find my location, but I’ve found it far harder to do in practice than in theory. Imagine that.

But I keep on practicing, and finally I’ve been succeeding. On this trip I played a game with my hiking buddy: occasionally I tried, in my comical professorial way, to guess our location with just a map and eyeballs and then he checked my guess against GPS or a compass. And … it worked! Pretty consistently! 

But fatigue blunts mental acuity. One teammate, Gunny, told me about a mud run he used to organize. Between wall climbs and rope swings, participants had to stop at other stations and solve math problems in their heads and other brain teasers. I would suck at that. When I suck wind, my head gets “thick” and turbid, like the thoughts are wading in knee-deep Jello. During the search I was navigating non-stop for hours in dense, tiring vegetation, and by the end of our assignment I lost 30 IQ points.

What to do about this? I’m sure practice and experience helps: the first time you “grid” a nasty slope of tough foliage, you’re at the steep part of the learning curve. I’m sure the tenth time is a different experience than the first. And it helps to travel as light as possible. As we’ve discussed before on this blog, researchers have quantified how much extra energy you burn by hauling unnecessary pounds. (Especially on the feet—we’ll return to that point soon in our post on French boots.) 

With the right tricks, it’s shockingly easy to approach a 1.5x bodyweight bench, double-bodyweight squat, and 2.5x bodyweight deadlift. After that, things get complicated and difficult.

However, beyond that, another factor is aerobic conditioning, and that’s squarely in your control. As an erstwhile strength athletes, it pains me to say this but there is no substitute for cardio, and I doubt you can ever have enough cardio, simply because I can’t imagine a time when you couldn’t improve further, or be better prepared for an emergency, just by having a bigger gas tank, better speed, and longer range. Don’t get me wrong—I still love strength, strength is still important, and most people have plenty of “room to grow” and get noticeably stronger with just a small investment in “easy strength” training. But in strength there are some very real points of diminishing returns. One is that, for almost any activity except powerlifting and maybe certain positions in American football, there comes a point when enough strength is enough. As we’ve written here before, Navy researchers found that aspiring SEALs who were too strong in certain events actually fared worse in training. Their explanation? If you’re deadlifting with such focus that you pull triple bodyweight, you’re robbing training time from equally important things like running and swimming and pullups. That is, you’re over-focusing. This brings us to the second point, which is efficiency. It takes almost nothing to train a healthy man to deadlift two “wheels” (225#, about 100kg). From there, it takes only a little more time to pull three wheels (315#). Four wheels takes a lot longer, and five (495#) takes many years. For six, you need several of the following: freakish talent, drugs, good coaching, a willingness to sacrifice your health, and many years of persistence. Each level gets harder, takes longer, and gives you less improvement in exchange for your time. Once you’re at the top of your game, you might spend a year trying to bump up a given lift just 10 pounds. You’ve become a highly specialized athlete and sacrificed lots of other attributes to become a strength specialist.

In my own life, I won’t run into many problems that call for a 500# deadlift. But I often would like the freedom to move farther faster longer and with more surplus energy and mental clarity that comes from a huge aerobic gas tank. And I can maintain a deadlift of close to 400# without thinking about it. That’s enough for a deadlift—for cardio, I don’t think enough is ever enough.

Captain America and “third-line” equipment: Many teammates have introduced me to the idea of what some describe as “first-line” and “second-line” equipment, meaning roughly the stuff that’s so essential that you attach it directly to your body (e.g. in a pocket or a belt pouch) and the stuff that you relegate to your pack. That way, in case you get separated from your pack, you’ve still got the indispensable “must-haves” for staying/getting out of trouble.

But this weekend, a teammate’s example got me thinking about what I guess could be called “third-line” gear, stuff that you can’t schlep around all over the field and probably won’t need—but you’d still like to have options. Normally I keep that kind of “just in case” stuff in my car—tons of water, a hatchet and shovel and knife, ropes, lights, and spare clothes. And that’s great—until I catch a ride to a call in someone else’s car! This other teammate, a lantern-jawed Captain America-type, had a better idea: he showed up at staging with both a pack and an elephant-sized duffel bag that he stashed in the truck. As he told me, “Sometimes you can’t be sure what to bring, so I bring everything.”

This sounds like a good piece of insurance for when I show up at a call and find a situation that’s different from what I expected—which is every blessed time. I always arrive to find weather or terrain or something that’s different from what I expected. And in that moment, I think, “I can get by with my usual boots/gloves/layers/whatever, but I would have brought something specific if I’d known it would be this swampy/parched/dusty/thorny/humid/ drizzly/windy/cold/hot/rocky/slippery.

Food, Non-eating of: I still prefer not to eat much in the field. Over two days I spent about 4000 calories more than I ate, subsisting mostly on milk and pistachios, and it was only late in the second day that I developed more than a casual interest in food. If the keto crowd are right, this means that I’m sufficiently “fat-adapted” to draw my energy directly from fat stores (which I have in plenitude right now). This is a nice perk. Aside from mere convenience, I love being liberated from the alternating hunger and nausea I felt during the Star Course, when I was all sugared up.

Chest rig and dump pouches: At the big search, the chest rig was a dream. As often happens, I suddenly had to start manipulating a bunch of tools at once and clear space in pouches for a second radio and batteries, and the chest rig kept everything in order almost effortlessly. Losing stuff is a thing of the past for me—thank you, chest rig! And I finally I realized what I should be using those thigh pockets for: dump pouches. When somebody thrusts a jumble of spare radio parts into my already full hands just as I need to ruck up and jump on a departing vehicle in a hurry, I can either (a) juggle like a circus clown, (b) lose stuff, (c) drop everything on the ground and start sorting the puzzle pieces while everyone waits there, or (d) use those big thigh pockets as dump pouches and then sort out the whole Rube Goldberg machine when there’s a quiet moment. I’ve tried A through C before, with unimpressive results. But D looks like a winner! 

Double Your Work Capacity By Being Lazy

This little $4 Esbit stove has been a huge winner for me. Dating back to the 1940s, it uses technology and design so simple and un-screw-up-able that I consider it honorarily Russian. And though it’s as just a survival stove, if you add a coffee can to screen it from the wind and contain the heat, it gets wicked hot.
I’m paranoid about camp fires getting out of control in the summer, but luckily I could just stand in the stream cook on top of this boulder.

I’ve long preached that you should do workouts that you enjoy. It’s actually pretty easy to make progress, and if you’re consistent about doing those easy things, you’ll soon be achieving milestones that put you far, far, far ahead of the general population.

And how do you know if you’re continuing to make progress with your easy, enjoyable training? You just keep track of some key benchmarks over time, including some standard workouts. If you keep improving in those numbers, you’re doing something right!

For example, easy running guru Maffetone has his athletes run a standard test workout periodically. They run three miles at a pre-determined, low heart rate: if their time improves, they know their aerobic base is improving.

One of my benchmarking workouts is the hike to my favorite camping spot in the Marijuana Highlands. It’s 15 miles of bad, steep terrain. On my first romp out there in 21 months ago, I took a pack weighing 45# (wet) and needed 7 hours to arrive in camp. When I got there I was delirious and sore all over, my feet looked like raw chicken breasts, and it took a long, painful time just to strip off my clothes and boots. On future trips I cut the hike down to 5.5 hours and didn’t wreck myself getting to camp, but it was still a substantial hike.

Full disclosure: at 39 lbs., my pack was 6 lbs. (2+ kg) lighter than my first trip. The weather was also cooler. On the other hand, I did this trip with no food but about 200g of nuts.

So I was blown away by my last trip. Despite taking it very easy, I arrived in camp an hour faster than ever before and fresh as a bowl of strawberries. This being my first big romp of the year, I assumed I would be tired and slow, but on the contrary it was barely lunch time and I was sitting in camp with hours of daylight left, tons of pep, and nothing to do.

So I packed up and did the whole thing in reverse! I spent 95 minutes eating nuts, swimming in the stream, and having coffee, and then I rucked up and marched all the way back. It was a joy! I didn’t push myself on the return march (and in fact had to slow down several times to keep my heart rate under control), but without trying I ended up equaling my best-ever time of 5.5 hours.

This was a huge surprise. I figured it would be possible to hike straight back, to save someone’s life or as a stupid stunt, but I supposed you’d have to do it on pure gumption and willpower.

But now I know better because I just did it, out of boredom and with a smile on my face!

Romp in the Rain

Today’s game was to test out rain gear on a 3-mile ruck romp with Lean Solid Girl and our team weight, the Canadian Brick Bag (CBB), a sturdy canvas antique loaded with 35# of bricks. 

The rule was that the bag had to be carried in one hand at all times, by either one of us, and could not touch the ground unless one of us was doing weighted pushups.

I was testing the reputed king of rain ponchos, issued (like so much of my favorite gear) by Germany’s exquisitely equipped Bundeswehr. The “BW-poncho” doesn’t have the hobbit-like appeal of my Soviet plash-palatka, because it closes at the sides rather than the front, but that produces a wonderful advantage: it gives you makeshift sleeves, instead of just an arm hole like its Soviet cousin, and keeps you sealed up and wonderfully dry.     

Except for your legs. I wanted to make this a pure test of the BW-poncho, so I wore no other rain gear, just a cotton shirt and khaki pants. The rain rolled down the poncho but then directly onto my shins. That’s no knock on the poncho—not a drop of water wandered inside—it just means that you need rain pants.

As it happened, Lean Solid Girl was testing the REI Talusphere Women’s Rain Pants, which she rated as excellent. The pants got a good soak but kept LSG dry. She appreciates particularly that REI sizes these like the Austrian Bundesheer, with separate length options within each size, and the pants stretch a little so that they fit closely and do not swish much, making them “not only functional but flattering.” 

Our other takeaway was that the Canadian Brick Bag is a delight. Thirty-five pounds is a serious encumbrance when you have to carry it suitcase-style, but it’s light enough that by trading it back and forth between hands and between teammates, you can carry it indefinitely. All it needs is a pair of gloves and/or some padding on the handle to keep it from grinding up your fingers.