The Art of the Workaround

New cardio hack! You’ve heard runners say, “An ounce on the foot is like a pound in the pack?” Well according to some researchers the ratio is more like 1:5, but that’s still useful. 

So to work around some shoulder and hand injuries, today’s game was to hike the Faeriemount with ankle weights. That way, even with just a light pack and club, your heart and lungs still think you’re hauling a lot of weight. 

In some sports, you specialize in a very few attributes, like pure strength or aerobic endurance. For example, in deadlift-only competition, you focus on absolute strength only, in just one movement. That’s about as specialized as you can get. At the opposite pole are events where you depend on a dozen or so attributes, or at any rate so many that you can’t afford to specialize much in any of them. That’s the case with obstacle course races and GORUCK challenges. You’ll need to run, climb, crawl, jump, press, pull, squat, carry, swing, and grip, at sprint speeds and at an endurance pace. You can’t afford to specialize much.

More than five thousand participants compete in the Spartan Race, a four-mile long extreme obstacle course, held at the Washougal MX Park, Saturday, June 16, 2012. (Steven Lane/The Columbian)

That’s a lot to worry about, but I’m luxuriating in the variety! Don’t feel like rucking today? Fine, lift weights–you need the strength work. Or go for a run or ride: you can get in some aerobic work and rest the rucking muscles. Or go to yoga. Tweaked your shoulder? No problem, rest it and work on something else. Don’t have access to any equipment or workout clothes today? Fine, load up a bag with books or groceries and suitcase-carry it around for half an hour. You will benefit a lot.

Bottom line: For almost any limitation, you can make a game of working around it. And the less your specialized your sport, the broader the menu of useful games and workarounds.

Strength Is a Skill

The third installment in our series, “20 Years of Pavel Tsatsouline.”  

“Nothing is more practical than a good theory,” and Pavel Tsatsouline has always excelled at distilling exercise science into something immediately useful and dummy-proof. In his short, entertaining 1999 book, Power to the People, he changed popular strength training by drawing consequences that now seem obvious from a theory so simple that it seemed axiomatic and boring.

The theory? “Tension = Strength.” “The tenser your muscles are,” Tsatsouline wrote, “the more strength you display.” You’re nodding and yawning, right? But what that means is that you can get stronger by “acquiring the skill to generate more tension.”

That one word, “skill.” Few of us understood right away, but with that word Tsatsouline had just started a revolution by introducing a very Russian paradigm that was almost completely new to the West:

Strength is a skill. You don’t “build” it physically, you “practice” it.

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Tsatsouline was like a distillery for Soviet sports research. Into his head went dozens of classics like Robert Roman’s Trenirovka tyazheloatleta (The Training of the Weightlifter) (1968), and out of his pen dripped a thin trickle of very potent training hacks.

That is why strength training is much like learning to play the piano, speak Hungarian, or do yoga, and you can use many of the same principles.

Recognizing strength as a skill practice was the seed of all Tsatsouline’s signature teachings: minimalism, sets of five, avoiding fatigue, and practicing as often as possible while staying fresh—all things that we will explain in due time. But for now, let us jump straight to some picturesque, practical examples.

Once you get that strength is a skill, you can apply that immediately and hack the nervous system to create extra tension (meaning extra strength) that very minute.

Here’s one such hack: With one hand, squeeze a friend’s arm as hard as you can. Now get ready to squeeze it a second time, but this time simultaneously squeeze your other hand in a fist as hard as possible. Or better yet, squeeze your other hand around some object, like your Nalgene water bottle. For neurological reasons, you can boost the tension in one limb by tensing the other one too. You can punch or push harder with one hand if you are pulling with the other hand, and your abs will light up like Christmas lights.

Here’s another one: if you are struggling to complete a pullup, have a partner stand behind you and lightly “karate chop” you under the armpits. Those are the lats, which power most of the pullup, and they will respond to the chopping by tensing up. That is, they will get stronger that very instant! And with a little practice, they will stay stronger even after your friend stops chopping on them. What has happened? Easy, you have learned to create more tension in your lats.

Furthermore, as it happens, the lats are special because they are heavily involved in virtually all strength movements. Once you learn to tense the lats hard at will, you get noticeably stronger in pretty much everything: squatting, deadlifting, pressing, grip strength, swinging a kettlebell, and lots of yoga postures. That tension in the lats will flow both to the smaller muscles—the shoulders, arms, hands, and abs—and  also to large powerful muscles like the glutes, hamstrings, and quads.

Aryan Invasion

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My house has been invaded by yogis! It’s great!

Everywhere you go, you stumble over someone pacing and chanting silently, hunkered down translating Bengali hagiographies on an iMac, or playing ragas on a guitar in the garden. These guys all trail the scent of sandalwood around the house, they keep the kitchen always smelling of warm cauliflower and turmeric, and in various places they have white dhotis laid out to dry and little pots of paste for painting the tilaka on their foreheads.

Imagine you are a teenage heavy metal fan and then Black Sabbath descends on your house and throws a week-long rager. Only now imagine that instead of stone-cold rockers they’re yogis, and their idea of a tear-the-walls-down-to-the-studs party is to smile a lot, be fairly quiet, and laugh frequently. It’s just like that.

Everyone should have a yogic bliss squad of Hindu mendicants who takes their home over twice a year and rejuvenates the place. Haribol! (Don’t tell the Buddha I said that. I’ll get in trouble. Seriously.)

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Torpid Taper

By the week before a competition, you’ve accumulated fatigue and it’s time to refill your tank with a week’s layoff. That means going easy and limiting yourself to foam rolling and active recovery (spelled “yoga”).

Everyone I know tries to screw this up. You’re resting and supercompensating from training stress and your body is gathering a huge charge of energy like a battery. You’re crackling with electricity and dying to discharge it, and even though your job is to restrain yourself and save your spunk for game day, you start to rationalize one more “moderate” workout … which itself is probably a bad idea and often morphs into a near-max effort. Or you get bored and monkey with your diet or embark on some other dumb eleventh-hour self-experimentation. Because you’re so restless and keyed up.

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Even the irrepressible Molly is infected by my lassitude.

But this week I feel none of that. I feel tired, sore, dinged up, and LAZY. Yesterday I napped for two hours and today I’d still like to camp on the couch. I’m worried I won’t get my mojo back and that Friday after dark, when it’s time to ruck til dawn, I’m going to want chamomile tea and a bedtime story.

Lazy Fitness

If you are a Lean, Solid Dog, you need a lot of rest.

By a quirk of history, Americans took much of what we “know” about fitness from a terrible source, bodybuilders. Why terrible? Because since the Seventies, bodybuilding has been transformed a few times over by steroids, and if you are training with “Vitamin S,” then you are operating with a whole different physiology than the rest of us. Therefore you don’t have much training advice that can apply to people not using mind-blowing “Russian supplements.” * Think of drug-assisted athletes (and they are now the norm) as almost a different species from yourself, and taking your ideas about training from them is like following the nutrition plan of a zebra.

It is from bodybuilding that Americans got most of our counterproductive “no pain, no gain” illusions about fitness. If you were juicing, you could get some use from that approach, just like the Incredible Hulk can perform great even without a rubdown and a nap. But you, dear friend, unless you are a professional hardman hardperson, you probably don’t need more than one challenging strength and aerobic session every week or so. What you do need a lot of is “active recovery.”

Clarence Bass by Guy Appelman age 50
Clarence Bass, father of the “ripped” look, does strength and cardio once every 5-10 days. The other days he just walks in the hills. (Apparently in bikini briefs.)

It’s a cliché of training that “You don’t get fitter from exercise, you get fitter by recovering from exercise.” And it’s a cliché because it’s true. Your muscles don’t grow while lifting weights, for example. They grow afterward by taking in nutrition and thickening in case they get worked hard again.

That is how steroids work too. They are not exactly performance-enhancing drugs, they are recovery-enhancing drugs. They make you bounce back from training faster and higher, and that’s how they improve your performance indirectly.

For a lazy person like me, it’s wonderful to know that I can limit serious exertion to one or two weekly bouts and then use the rest of my “training” time on rest and recovery. Yes, it’s true that we really should get exercise every day. But what we’re looking for is “active recovery.”

You rest better and quicker through active recovery than passive recovery, i.e. sitting on the couch. You just do light activity that makes you breathe a little harder and get some blood and endorphins flowing, but that’s all! As a rule of thumb, you are doing it right if you are breathing a little more deeply but you could hold a conversation or sing a song without feeling short of breath. This could be just walking or riding your bike for transportation. Similarly for light (!) hiking.

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The late mountaineer Anatoli Boukreev was way ahead of his time in the West about preaching active over passive recovery. Here as in so much of exercise science, the former Communist bloc really had the edge over us.

For fairly serious athletes in any discipline, I think the king of active recovery is yoga. You go for the active recovery and in the bargain you also get invaluable prehab and rehab, which no one gets enough of, in an environment that is also a huge serotonin factory AND full of lithe, beaming people.

 

* Note: I don’t necessarily poo-poo drug-assisted training as morally inferior or easier. On the first point, I exercise because it makes me so happy, not so I can imagine myself as someone else’s better (as if anyone cares anyway). Second, drugs don’t exactly make training easier. If you think that, start squatting under a bar that’s 200# heavier than you use now—do it however you have to, I don’t care—and then get in touch to tell me about how easy your training has become.

The Science of Yoga Shorts

A mind is a terrible thing. If you are lucky enough not to have one, I counsel you to keep it that way.

If you do acquire a mind, you may end up like me. I have gone far, far down the rabbit hole in preparing for the all-night ruck, and it has led me into a monstrous, Faustian quest for Science.

Why? I’ve been warned that we will end up soaking wet whenever the race directors can arrange it, so I decided to find out what happens when I get my equipment in water. It has been a big eye-opener.

I found that some clothes get much heavier than others when soaked, and/or they dry very slowly. An over-eager mind with an excess of intellectualism, I broke out the scale and the lab notebook. I weighed everything dry, wet, and partially dry, and aside from having a more fun lab experience than anything in high school chemistry, I discovered surprising things.

Chiefly, my awesome, comfortable German shirt and pants turn to lead when wet. My favorite hiking shorts also hold more water than a llama, and those big pockets I like so much will stay damp and heavy all night.

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How about we just say I’m really secure in my masculinity?

What emerged in the lab as the hands-down winner? I am almost too embarrassed to tell you. My goofy yoga shorts. Yes, they belong on Steve Gutenberg in Can’t Stop the Music, but they weigh just 440g soaking wet. Almost everything else is two or three times as heavy.

That is not the truth I wanted. So I did what educated people always do with an unwelcome finding and tried to rationalize it away. Maybe the 1970s gigolo shorts would chafe, or allow my backpack to chafe. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to manage without cargo pockets. After all, these things can’t hold anything more than a few stripper singles.

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The vanquished DPM trousers

So today I conducted field trials: I put on the Goofy Yoga Shorts and a British DPM button-down shirt, jumped in a swimming pool, and then humped a pack up the Rock of Faeries, on the clock and with a notebook. Then I repeated the trial with the long pants that did the best in the lab, also British DPM.

The Goofy Yoga Shorts crushed the pants. I bopped up and down the hills with spritely steps like Steve Gutenberg on roller skates. Their only drawback was that they dribbled water down my legs into my boots. The pants could avoid that—I just wore the cuffs outside my boot tops—but in every other way they sucked by comparison. They bound my strides just enough to annoy me, and it only got worse if I tried to put something as paltry as a pair of gloves into the pockets. My conclusion was, my legs have enough work to do, they don’t also need to lift wet layers of cotton/poly weave. Whatever I need to carry in a pocket, I’ll put it in a shirt pocket or even hang it from my shoulder straps.

Farewell British Army, namaste Lululemon. Let Science reign.

Steamy Yoga

Hot yoga, very hot. At the front of the room, someone gets so into the distinctive, raspy throat breathing that he sounds like he’s, um, with someone very special to him. With this door opened, the rest of the room gets equally disinhibited until it sounds like we’re at an orgy on Fire Island. Or an after-party at the Modern Language Association.

The Neanderthal and the Yogi

If you were ever hectored about your posture, you were probably told to “stand up straight” and maybe to turn your chest out or pull your shoulders back. Those are good cues, but nobody mentions the most important thing: “elbow pits forward.”

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Jerry shirt, jerry can

To stand up straight up with your chest out, you only need to move your spine, but most of us have another problem too, with how our upper arms are rotated. Freeze right now and look down to see where your elbow pits are facing. (If you aren’t sure, just curl your forearm up to your bicep and back without moving anywhere except at your elbow. Whatever plane your arm is moving in, that’s where your elbow pit is facing.) Almost everyone I know has their elbow pits turned inward most of the time, toward the body’s centerline. That’s because we sit a lot and constantly use keyboards, pens, and other tools centered in front of our bodies, and to touch them we have to angle our hands inward in what’s called “internal rotation.”

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From Barbara Loomis at alignmentmonkey.nurturance.net
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Strength athletes suffer terrible internal rotation, especially in America where we fetishize the bench press, and that gives us a familiar “Neanderthal” look: thick in the pecs, wide in the lats, and short-necked and slope-shouldered. Once I was asked by a dancer I had only just met whether I’d once wrestled. My answer was, “Yes, very badly” and I was amazed at her clairvoyance. She explained that she could usually spot wrestling types by “the way they move.” I have a hunch (get it?) that she is tipped off largely by that caveman-like internal rotation.

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blog.discountdance.com

Contrast dancers: they are easy to spot, at least when assuming their stage presence, by that distinctive upright carriage. They are taught to imagine a string gently pulling the crown of the head upward, drawing them erect with necks long. But I think that a lot of what we recognize as “dancer posture” is that they aren’t internally rotated like the rest of us.

For us, probably the only place where we unlearn this deformity is in a yoga class. Often teachers don’t emphasize it or articulate the lesson well, but in effect they are trying to train your elbow pits forward when they cue you to “draw your shoulders down away from your ears” and “broaden the back.” (Unfortunately those aren’t great cues because you can follow them even when your elbow pits are still turned inward just by engaging your lats.) In my experience, this is the magic of a pose like downward dog or upward dog. If you follow all the directions (spread your fingers, pronate the palms fully, “lengthen” the collarbones, fire the lats hard) to “broaden the back and pull the shoulders away from the ears,” you are definitely turning those elbow pits forward.

And that is a wonderful thing. You get stronger (e.g. deadlifts, pull-ups, and all the presses), you avoid a lot of joint problems and injuries, and you look healthier too. In fact, what people see as “big pecs” or “well-defined shoulders” is largely about the shoulder joint being rotated out to a healthy position. Men and women both look fitter instantly, without gaining any muscle or losing any fat, just by turning those elbow pits forward. And for me, it even affects my mood: when I’m rotated out, I also feel more buoyant and cheerful.

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The hunched back starts with the knuckles being turned forward, and that rotates the elbow inward.

Why am I getting all didactic about elbow pits today? Because they were so hard for me to control on my walk! For some active recovery, I carried the jerry can (45#) up the Rock of Faeries and it was much harder than a kettlebell. The wider, clunkier shape tries to make you hold it farther out to your side. That’s a little more tiring and so instinctively you try to inch the can fractionally closer by turning your elbow in. And soon you’re a Neanderthal again. (Look at the picture on the right that Skadisdottir took of me carrying the archery target at my birthday party. You can see how stooped I am.)

So today I did my feeble best to treat carrying the can as a kind of yoga asana, focusing less on moving the implement than on keeping good position. On game day I won’t fuss overly much about form–the point will just be to move the f****** can, not to look like a ballerina–but on training days it’s much more important to reinforce good habits than squeeze out a little extra performance by cheating on fundamentals.

Vanya vs. The Backpack

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Behold the face of endorphins!

A wise man once told me, “There’s magic in loaded carries.” I did what I always do with really great advice: I ignored it as long as possible. But 2018 is shaping up as Jason’s Year of Loaded Carries.

Today’s game was to hump Vanya the 32kg Bell and the Backpack of Bricks up the ridge and back without letting either one touch the ground.

This was stupid but sublime. Stupid because even though I knew I wouldn’t be allowed to take off my pack, I still carried my water in there, making for a thirsty trek and proving that it’s not just my backpack that is full of bricks. But adding the backpack of bricks was transcendent: it’s only 30 lbs., but it pulls you off your already-weird axis, at a different angle from the kettlebell.

Strangely, the weighted carries have improved my yoga. They share a lot of commonalities. Yoga teaches you to recruit the 1,001 tiny, unglamorous muscles of the trunk and pelvis in any combination, and then you give them prolonged on-the-job-training by carrying heavy things over broken terrain. In both cases, if you are going to last 90 minutes without crumpling, you need to use them judiciously, resting some and relying on others in alternation.

In both cases, you have to “let the breath lead you.” That sounds metaphysical, but I mean something very mundane: If you are going to last an hour, you have to relax under the load enough to subsist on rich, deep nose breathing. You can last indefinitely that way. But the clock starts ticking on your stamina as soon as you start breathing roughly through your mouth. Your body stiffens up as your muscular tension rises, and you’ll be able to put on a burst of speed or power, but only for minutes or seconds before you have to stop and recover.