I hate to say this, but your single biggest priority is to create some modest aerobic base. That is, if you were cursed by an evil genie to be allowed only one kind of exercise, it would need to be something aerobic.
Why do I hate saying that? Because it sounds so 1980s, when America fetishized cardio to the neglect of all else and said we should avoid dietary fat and live on bagels and pasta.
But you get the most happiness, health, leanness, and energy from a modest dose of easy aerobic exercise.
And I really do mean easy. I’m talking a maximum heart rate of 180 minus your age. That’s nothing. Unless you have a good aerobic base already, that’s probably just a fast walk while swinging your arms.
And the great part is, you benefit MUCH more from that easy pace than by pushing yourself. If you care about why, read the writings of endurance super-coach Phil Maffetone. Maffetone trains elite athletes mostly or entirely in that 180 Minus Age zone, which is also where the endorphins and the bliss are. But whether or not you concern yourself with the “why?” the important point is this: by keeping your heart rate low, you IMPROVE the training effect. You are not compromising your training by going easy. You will outperform the people who train at too high a heart rate (which is almost everyone).
How do I figure out my heart rate?
Buy a heart rate monitor. You’ll need to spend about $60 for an adequate, reliable basic model. Frugal to a fault, I seldom recommend throwing away money on wiz-bang fitness devices. But a heart rate monitor is one of the few exceptions. It really does help SO much that it’s a must-buy even for a tight-fisted Buddhist stoic who thinks that if the Red Army considered it an unnecessary frippery, you can too.
No, you don’t need to start running
So do I mean that you should start walking or running? Nope. Do anything that elevates your heart rate to that magic number and holds it there steadily. You can ride a bike, roller blade, paddle or row, ski or snowshoe, and you might also really like another obscure activity from the 80s called HeavyHands. Trust me on this one: HeavyHands is awesome and makes you feel incredible.
“Like water, volume is soft and yielding. But volume will wear away rock, and it beats the crap out of excess fatigue. As a rule, volume wins over fatigue. This is another paradox: what is soft and voluminous is strong.”
from the lost training manual of Laozi (Lao-Tzu)
In the most original book on training in decades, Pavel Tsatsouline describes a certifiable badass, a special operations ninja-type whom he pseudonymously calls “Victor.” Victor combines a pair of already-extraordinary feats into an extra-extraordinary combination: he runs ultra-marathons of up to 100 miles AND he does pullups with an extra 160# hanging from his waist. That’s a freakish level of endurance and world-class strength, a combination so rare as to seem impossible. (As we have said before, strength and endurance are rivals.) That is what makes Victor an elite among the elite, a certifiable badass.
To reach those heights, Victor trains in a very special way: lazily. Or to be more precise, with low fatigue. From his amazing accomplishments, you might suppose that he spends all day exercising and puking his guts out. Nope. Most days he works out for all of 30 minutes, much of it with a 24kg kettlebell, which is strictly a “Joe Average” weight, and some pushups and pull-ups and yoga. He left behind even low-key barbell training long ago, explaining that when he deadlifted, “I felt my ego pushing me harder and faster than my body wanted to go. So I decided to limit myself to one kettlebell and two [steel exercise] clubs …”
As the core of his lethargic-looking super-routine, Victor runs … sloooooowly. Slowly enough to breath only through his nose, with rhythm and relaxation. He writes:
“The key is … the LOW INTENSITY. I use a heart rate monitor, and I stay at 60% to 65% of my [max heart rate]. This means that I am often walking on the hills. If I ran [faster], my recovery time would be much longer.”
Pavel and Victor are insistent: Victor is not succeeding in spite of his low-key training but precisely because he throttles back. Victor has perfected one way of applying the near-magical formula for productive and happy training: do as much work as possible while staying as fresh as possible.
Are those twelve words too much to remember? Then stencil this on your kettlebells, barbells, and running shoes: Volume Without Fatigue. That is the red thread that runs through many of the successful training philosophies out there, connecting disparate-looking approaches whose only apparent link is that they work well, and it is the subject of our next series, “Farewell to Fatigue: The Way of the Lazy Badass.”
This morning’s game was called “Loopsided”: three mismatched weights all carried off-center, starring the Leaden Loop.
People don’t like one-arm or one-legged lifts very much, including me, because they take more time and tire the core muscles. But you need to work in the transverse (side-to-side) somehow, and you can check that box with weighted carries, or even by lifting mismatched dumbells. You’ll feel challenged and kinesthetically interested, but it won’t suck up a lot of time or smoke your abs so much that it becomes just an elaborate core exercise.
This is the second installment in a series on the physical culture system of Russian powerlifter Alexey Faleev. Read Part 1 here.
Why am I so charmed by Faleev’s system? Aside from how effective it is, what I love is his holistic “sports spiritualism” (my word, not his). Who else would write a guide to powerlifting with sections on Buddhism, the Gospels, how to talk to your spouse to ensure marital harmony, and the use of poetry for max attempts in the clean and jerk?
Then again, that is not so unusual among Russian “physical culturists.” In his book on breath training for combat sports, martial artist Vlad Vasiliev quotes the Bible in most chapters and talks as much about Hesychastic prayer as walking and jogging. In a typical passage Vasiliev remarks:
I have noticed, especially in the West, that many … close up when they are asked to pray to God in training. If this is a problem for you … try it just a few times. Take yourself to the breaking point in one of the breath-holding exercises and start saying ‘Lord have mercy’ in your mind. Do not let pride prevent you from doing this, you will be glad you tried.
Faleev for his part mixes a traditionalist respect for Russian Orthodox mysticism and old-time Russian foodways and health practices with a strong interest in Russian experimental psychology and what we could call “applied yoga.”
In the West, we had a related “physical culture” movement a century ago centered around exercise, healthy living, and human thriving for a population that was beginning to live in cities, eat an industrialized diet, work at desks, and get less exercise and fresh air. In these novel, urbanized lives, they were less physically vigorous and close to the land than their grandparents had been and some sensed that they were making trade-offs in health and happiness.
“Physical culturists” taught ways to hang on to some of the old-time physicality and grit that they thought we moderns would still need to feel healthy and fulfilled. Think of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Victorian strongmen with waxed moustaches, the modern Olympiad, the YMCA, “muscular Christianity,” Theodore Roosevelt, the Victorian vegetarian movement, German fruitarians and nudists, Seventh-Day Adventists, and anti-masturbation foods like Kellogg’s cereals and Graham crackers. It was an extremely broad movement, a diverse three-ring circus of eccentrics and visionaries, but they had this in common: they saw people as embodied souls who require physical vigor to be spiritually fulfilled. Phrasing it differently, they were a holistic health cult.
In the West, we stopped talking about “physical culture” much after the 1940s. The movement branched off into independent specialties and governing bodies—academic medicine and nutritional science, psychoanalysis, sanctioning federations for organized sports, sports media companies—and the adorably zany and heterogeneous old holistic health cult evolved and specialized itself out of existence.
In strength training, the old-time strongman was replaced by distinct sports: first weightlifting was standardized as an Olympic event, then bodybuilding declared its independence in the 1950s, followed by powerlifting in the 1960s. The new sports were not obsessed with psycho-physical health nearly as much as with rankings, records, and titles and there were also organizational politics to navigate and publishing industries and supplement businesses to build. The competitors also had access to steroids for the first time, and increasingly they had to choose between staying natural and winning.
Granted, after the old “physical culture” model broke apart in the post-war West, there remained a minority of people intrigued by holistic health practices. But instead of weightlifting, wrestling, gymnastics, and the like, they now gravitated toward yoga, vegetarianism, novel practices drawn from dance, and New Age psychotherapies. For quick-and-dirty heuristic purposes, I’d describe their new home as more feminine than masculine, more pacifist than martial, and more Gandhi than Charles Atlas.
It was in the Russified world where physical culture (физкультура) stayed relatively intact and kept closer to the old holistic model. Yes, it too was permeated and changed by drugs and competitive pressures. But the Soviet fizkul’turniki stayed close to their roots in rough-and-tumble sports and they kept using herbs, folk medicine, ice baths, and saunas, and their sports scientists plundered yoga for breath control disciplines, relaxation techniques, and other Jedi mind tricks that athletes could use to lift, run, wrestle, box, or throw better.
In our next installment, we will learn the “how to” of Faleev’s holistic sports spiritualism.
Athletically, it does pay to be young in general, but you also improve certain things and make your life easier with what they call “training age.”
Take the example of “dad strength.” “Growing up,” writes Dan John, “a lot of us used to lift weights all the time but still could not torque a wrench or open a jar like dad, who never did any lifting.” By 16 I was bigger than my skinny dad and much stronger with a barbell, but it was another decade before I was better at moving a refrigerator. Dad had spent half a lifetime playing sports, loading moving trucks, and manhandling boxes down from the attic.
In real-world strength tasks, dad was stronger because he had an extra 30+ years of “training age.” With all that experience of moving everyday stuff around, he was just really good at it. Folks underestimate how much strength is a skill, the sum of a dozen mundane little variables of balance, posture, breathing, timing, and the use of your abs. Especially the abs. (As Pavel Tsatsouline says, strong abs + strong grip = strong person. Everything else is icing on top.)
With training age you can also get another huge asset: tendon and ligament strength. Even with little training, most of us already have good strong muscles. Our weak link is the thin little tendons that hold our big muscles onto the bone. (Think of eating drumstricks. Those little white plasticy cords that hold the meat onto the bone? Those are tendons.) Tendons are weak and vulnerable, and your muscles are already so strong that you could accidentally tear them off the bone, and then you’re in big trouble. So your body protects you by turning your muscles off if they get too close to overloading your tendons.
And it’s hard to thicken and strengthen your tendons. They receive little blood flow, unlike your muscles. So to grow them you need years of stimulus. In other words, you need years of training age! If you’ve handled heavy things routinely over many years, you’ve gradually grown and toughened those tendons and ligaments and so you can exert more muscular strength before your body gets worried and shuts the muscles down. (Incidentally, this is a problem with steroids: they build muscles faster but not the tendons and make it easier to “blow a tendon,” usually in a pec or bicep.)
Sometimes you meet retired athletes who have not trained in years and have average-guy muscles, but they can still do freakish feats of strength because under the skin they still have those Superman tendons. And because your strength depends so much on skill and tough tendons, which depend a lot on training age, strength ages really well. Powerlifters may not peak until their early 40s, for example, and they can retain much of their strength even if they stop training and regain it quickly when they resume.
Of course, you do not improve every attribute with training age, or all the Olympic medals would go home with the silver foxes. You lose some joint elasticity and aerobic capacity every year that you are alive, for example, and though you can mitigate that with training, you can’t reverse it. But if you are a lifelong athlete or laborer, then depending on your sport you may find yourself with relative advantages that you can play to.
Deep in the boonies, miles from human habitation, I found something lying in the dust that’s completely out of place … a “Fat Gripz Extreme.”
In the already-marginal world of strength training, these are rare and highly specialized. You put them on dumbbell handles to purposely make them hard to hold onto. There are legit reasons for doing so, but all are advanced and/or weird.
Somewhere out there is a drug grower who is a very serious ironhead, and he’s pissed. These things are expensive, and now I’ve got his stuff! (Shudder.) But I’m taking it as a sign from the gods of Valhalla: “Develop thy grip!”
The Goofy Yoga Shorts. Never mind what the smart-alecks say [looking sideways at Lee], these were SOOOOO practical. They didn’t bind my legs and, when wet, they drip-dried in no time.
Caffeine and Sugar. I drank the equivalent of six or seven cups of coffee. I only regret not drinking twice that. And on Ultra Scott’s advice, I broke out of ketosis during the event and inhaled a pound and a half of chocolate. He was so very right about this: I did get momentarily tired, but I never got exhausted.
Kettlebells: More than ever, I think that if you have only one conditioning tool in your toolbox, it should be a kettlebell. If someone asks, “What is the single thing you could do to prepare for ten different physical challenges, chosen at random by a smiling, demonic taskmaster?” you should answer, “Kettlebells.”
The glasses strap: They look dorky, but one poor sod lost his glasses in the surf.
2. Terrible Ideas: Four of the Many
Boonie hat: If it wasn’t getting sucked off my head in the surf, it was obstructing my vision. It’s perfect in the climate where I live, but for these events, it’s a wool beanie or nothing.
Not layering: I knew we’d get wet and cold, so why didn’t I pack some kind of underlayer? After Surf Horror™, other people changed into something dry and looked very happy, whereas I was a trembling wreck.