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!”

Before Buff: Why Were Dad Bods Admired In the Early 1900s?

Ever look at old-time photos showing paragons of manliness? Ever notice how many turn-of-the-century sex symbols are proudly repping dad bods?

It gets stranger: other models from the period look every bit as sculpted and Grecian as Brad Pitt in Troy, but no one seems to care. There’s no indication that anyone in 1900–the photographers, the models, or the audiences–preferred the buff guys to the dad bods.

What changed?

The Modern Aesthetic Is Weird

For modern Americans, living in the age of images, we’re fixated visually on proportions and textures. Without being aware of it, we’re checking out the relative girth or narrowness of waists, thighs, upper arms, and maybe necks.

As bodybuilding superfans know, the athlete who “looks biggest” might not actually be the heaviest or thickest guy on stage, but he at least looks that way because of his proportions. For example, he might measure smaller in the chest and shoulders than his competitor but appear broader owing to a narrower waist. His biceps will look bigger if he’s thinner at the elbow joint, and delts look more massive if they’re more defined. Cut, striated muscles capture the modern eye better than smooth ones because of their striking visual texture. Bodybuilding competitors look far bigger after dieting for a contest, when they’re at their leanest and smallest, than in the off-season with 20 or 30 extra pounds of subcutaneous fat and water.

Competitive bodybuilders can look big as Godzilla on stage but small in street clothes that obscure their proportions or definition. Bodybuilding immortal Clarence Bass weighs only 159 lbs. here (72kg). In a polo shirt you’d mistake him for just a serious golfer or a UPS man.

So why our fixation on these proportions and textures? It wasn’t always like this. Sure, it’s not all culturally dependent: I’m told that humans are wired to find proxies for fighting prowess and fertility in a man’s height and a woman’s hip-waist ratio. But those aren’t the proportions I’m talking about: I mean the modern American man’s wish for big muscles around the shoulder girdle, a narrow waist, and a finely etched abdomen. And yes, modern tastes do shift over time, like clothing fashions: today’s “yoked” look is different from the Arnold look, which differed from the Sixties look, which was WAY different from the Fifties look (owing to “vitamin S”), and the post-war Fifties look differed from the Depression-ear Thirties look.

However, before about 1920, we cross an uncanny valley into an America whose physique photos mark it as almost a different country, with physique ideals that are all over the place.

Some of these guys could succeed in 2022 as fitness models or amateur bodybuilders. But others look like they developed their physiques playing Starcraft II in an eSports league. Yet in 1900, there’s no sign that they’re considered less dreamy.

For example, France’s leading physical culturist made this full-page ad, and the longer I stare, that more disturbingly feminine it seems. To me he looks like a candidate for estrogen blockers and no more soy. But in 1908, people in three countries were paying him for lessons.

In the budding physique industry of 1908, these were beefcake shots. Today they’d almost be blackmail material.

So why didn’t the public of 1900 care whether a guys was cut to ribbons or looked like Captain Cookie Dough? What rewired our brains and created our modern aesthetic?

It’s the Photography, Stupid

If you were born before photography, you seldom saw bodies as still images. Excepting some mostly inaccessible statues and paintings, there were no frozen images of people’s bodies that you could study closely, at length and without staring impolitely. The only way to view people’s appearance was in real time, in real space and real life, with no mediation and no way to capture their image. You saw them in motion, in three dimensions, from all angles and distances, and mostly unposed, without special lighting, and wearing clothes.

Thank goodness the industry discarded the fig leaf trope quickly. Give this man a tiger skin loincloth. Or just release the kraken. But you can’t go “classical Athens” on top and “Book of Genesis” on bottom.

Only after photographs were invented did ordinary people slowly learn to appraise physiques in still images, where the subject bared his body and exhibited it in athletic trunks, a leopard skin, or (heaven help us) a fig leaf.

That was completely foreign to most humans until photos were invented.

Only after mass-market photography saturated America, I think, did we very slowly start to prefer muscular separation.

Of course, we kept tweaking physique ideals after that, but only concerning what kind of muscular separation we most admired–which muscles, what proportions, what visual texture.

Outright “definition.” Muscle Beach pro George Eiferman is lit to maximize his visual texture. We can see individual muscle heads, some striation in his midsection and thighs, deep shadows between muscle groups, and even some vascular “ripping” in his arms. Though Eiferman still looks smooth by standards of the coming steroid era, this image (1950) shows exactly where the industry is headed.

What Came Before Buff?

Now we can answer the question “What the heck was the standard of male physical excellence around 1900 that accounts for the array of physiques?” I think the answer is, they weren’t admiring physiques with a certain look, they were admiring what they looked like they could do.

I’m sure he has great abs, but that’s not really the point here.
(www.rarehistoricalphotos.com)

Before photos, what people saw of a man’s virility would mostly be his activity—you saw him working, hunting, fighting, or playing sports—or something impressive that he made by his activity: lumber that he cut, earth or ore that he dug, a structure he built, an animal he hunted, a person he defeated, a product he made.

Even a carnival strongman’s job was to amaze customers with his actions, not his physique. He performed feats–toying with an anvil, holding aloft a dancing ballerina in each hand–instead of poses.

What made this a “physique photo” circa 1900? What did Québecois strongman Louis Cyr and the photographer want to display for our admiration? In this case, it was “just” Cyr’s terrific girth. His arms, legs, chest, shoulders don’t look particularly shapely or hypertrophied (except maybe those big endomorphic calves), but they are all just huge. There’s nothing small on this guy: he’s uniformly enormous. If you lived a life of manual toil, when you looked at Cyr, you pictured the extraordinary ways such a human Clydesdale could help or harm you.

Try looking at 19th century strongman Louis Cyr with 19th century eyes. With your modern Instagram consciousness, you wouldn’t tag him as “sex symbol.” But imagine you live without power tools or Home Depot. You need to build a barn or unload a freight car: anything painful, heavy, and fatiguing. Now imagine you can use a lifeline and call anyone in the world to help you. Presto! Against a backdrop of daily toil, this guy starts to look beautiful. Seriously, if you labored all your days at mining, moving steel beams, butchering cattle, or hauling lumber, you would dream about befriending such men.

As your enemy, Cyr would look terrible and awesome. Look at him again, and imagine that you and your union brothers are striking. A truck rolls up and unloads goons hired by the bosses. Rough stuff is coming. Bones will get broken, maybe yours. Nearby you spot an ox-man like Louis Cyr. Is he with you or with the goons? In this situation, no one can be emotionally neutral about someone Cyr’s size. Either your monkey brain is flooded with love and gratitude for his gigantic presence, or your veins feel electrified with fear.

Just as “there are no atheists in foxholes,” I’d guess were no aesthetes in turn-of-the-century mining towns, or farm settlements, or saw mills or iron works.

Or rather, they were all aesthetes and appraised human forms by various standards (that’s just a fact of our primate nature), but they derived those standards less from seeing than doing.    

Strength performer Eugen Sandow and his manager pretty much invented the modern physique industry on the day in 1893 that they noticed that audiences at their strongman shows seemed curious about his peculiar, corrugated flesh. While Sandow was juggling sledgehammers or whatever, some spectators paid more attention to the workings of his sharply defined, anatomy-chart musculature. They decided to try adding another segment to the show: Sandow would take a few minutes off from bending horseshoes and flex his bare muscles for the audience to look at. People liked it! The canny entrepreneur helped invent the new art of physique photography, and much they way Edison and Bell grand-sired your local power company and phone provider, Sandow hacked a path through the early photographic era for the future muscle industry of physique photos, magazines, studios, and mail-order courses.

In a future piece, I will speculate, meditate, and bloviate about when America gathered its ideas about manly physical development mostly from boxing and wrestling instead of weightlifting, and the difference it made when your experience of physiques was as much tactile and kinesthetic as visual, when physiques weren’t just objects of vision but also grabbed or punched each other.

Girevoy Sport (Pt. 2): The Snatch, “Tsar of Kettlebell Exercises”

In the snatch, if you’re going to last the full 10 minutes, you must spare your grip. How? Use your legs. After you “pull” the bell up, bend at the knees and dip down. That way you won’t have to pull as high. Even more importantly, when you drop the bell back down, rise up on your toes and use your legs as shock absorbers. Tip your body back from the knees so that your arm falls across your chest and belly early in the drop—that will absorb more shock and slow down the bell’s fall.

This illustration isn’t perfect, because it leaves out some things like rising up on the toes. But you can see the athlete canting his body back a little (frame 3) and letting his arm press against the chest and belly (frames 4-6) to absorb shock and slow the bell’s fall. And you can see him bend the knees the first time, for more shock absorption (frames 5-7) and then the second time for the big “alley-oop” (frame 8). (Source: http://giri-narodu.ru/index.php?com=simplepage&elemId=18)
My first meet in 2002 or 2003, using an obsolete technique where you only bent your knees once and went into a low squat. This belongs in the dustbin of history, along with the thick-handled, cast-iron kettlebell I was using.

As the bell falls to the bottom of its arc, “give” at the knees a little to spare your grip muscles from sudden, abrupt wrenching. Then straighten your legs. When the bell pendulums forward again, bend your legs a second time so they can help “alley-oop” the bell upward. You’ll accelerate the bell more smoothly, and that way you’ll spare your grip even more. 

You can spare your grip further by how you hold the bell’s handle. When holding it overhead, let the handle rest diagonally down your palm. Go ahead and insert your hand as deep as you can. That way you can relax your grip. (Expect some growing pains as you get accustomed to steel pressing against unyielding, bony places. That only lasts a few weeks.)

When dropping the bell, do your best to hold it with just the first two fingers and thumb. Try not to grip the handle tightly. Just make a firm ring with those three fingers and let the handle rotate somewhat loosely within it. We don’t want a lot of muscle tension from over-gripping the bell, nor do we want torn callouses. This is one of the reasons that you will progress faster if you err on the side of lighter weights for higher (50+) reps. Master that, and you will progress to heavier bells naturally and swiftly.

Over-gripping is also a reason that you should use competition-style bells if possible, rather than the cast-iron ones. With their more slender handles, you can snatch them for much higher reps without a death-grip that will tear up your palms and cost you training time. Nor are they so very expensive, and since you will have these for the rest of your life (hell, your grandchildren’s lives!), you might as well get the good ones.

With some experimenting, you’ll feel most comfortable and efficient when dropping the bell if you hold the handle at the corner, not the middle. (See picture above.) And on the backswing, when you relax your arm, the bell will rotate on its own so that your thumb is pointing back (or at your bottom). Let it do that. 

These handsome old pugs would look callow and dorky if they had a bright, glossy paint job.

And if you’ll permit me a moment’s snobbery, for heaven’s sake, don’t pay more for “chip-resistant enamel coating.” Kettlebells are not fine china or ladies’ silk undergarments. They are like blue jeans—when new they look weird and a little embarrassing; when battered and worn, they look legit.

Want to learn more? Start ransacking the archives at Dr. Smet’s site, Girevoy Sport After 40. He’s been experimenting for years and translating materials from his native Russian about the evolving state of the sport. Girevoy sport is still fairly young and people are still making advances in technique and training methods. (If you follow martial arts, just compare the karate of the 80s with the early UFC of the 90s and then the far more advanced state of MMA today. It’s like three different geological ages.)

In particular, check out of two of Smet’s recent translations with commentary of snatch tutorials by Sergey Rudnev, five-time champion of the world. A small-framed man, Rudnev was competing with bells that weighed half his own bodyweight (!), and he developed a snatch technique that is exquisitely efficient. As Rudnev and other champs advise, whatever care and attention you invest in efficient technique, you will be repaid amply.

Selouyanov on Endurance (Pt. 2): More Russian Sports Science from Dr. Smet

Guest author “Dr. Smet” finishes his insider’s tour of the Russian sports science underlying Pavel Tsatsouline’s long-awaited endurance training manifesto, The Quick and the Dead. I follow Dr. Smet’s blog Girevoy Sport After 40 to read about top-dog Russian coaching and research from a medical scientist who also practices what he reports on.

Before we start I have to make a disclaimer of sorts. Soviet sport scientists then and Russian scientists now often have fragmented interest and education in the field. Throughout his lectures Selouyanov makes statements that are debatable, to say the least, even though he doesn’t seem to have experience in the subject. For example, his view is tht the only way to increase the strength of the glycolytic muscle fibers is to lift maximal weights to failure. Therefore, if some powerlifters don’t follow that rule and still get strong – that must be steroids, no other explanation is possible. I am not qualified to argue the subject and am only conveying Selouyanov’s work, so take it or leave it. 

So let’s get to the most relevant parts of Selouyanov’s teachings. 

Muscle fibers 
Muscle fibers are loosely divided into three types, depending on the activity of the enzymes, in poarticular ATP-ase. Oxydative muscle fibers (type I) have slow ATP-ase, their speed of contraction is slow and they are resistant to fatigue. Glycolytic muscle fibers (type II) have fast ATP-ase, contract quickly and can be either resistant to fatigue (Type IIA) or not (Type IIB). 
For the purpoose of training muscle fibers can be looked at in the following way:
Oxidative fibers – have mitochindrial mass that cannot be developed further. Each myofibril is surrounded by a layer of mitochondria. These fibers use fatty acids in the active state. 
Intermediate fibers – have lower number of mitochondria. As the result two processes occur during activity: aerobic glycolysis and anaerobic glycolysis. During activity lactate and hydrogen ions are accumulated, so these fibers develiop fatigue, but not as fast as purely glycolytic type. 
Glycolytic fibers – have no or little motochondria, so that anaerobic glycolysis predominates, with the resulting accumulation of hydrogen ions and lactate. 

Factors that determine endurance

According to Selouyanov the difference in endurance can be fully explained by several factors. 
1) First, the development of the oxidative muscle fibers. Among well trained endurance athletes oxydative muscle fibers comprise 90 – 100% of the total muscle mass, therefore they don’t produce lactic acid in excessive quantities that cause significant acidosis and the resulting decline oin performance. To the contrary, among untrained individuals 50% of muscle consists of intermediate muscle fibers which, during their progressive recruitment during exercise, accumulate lactate. 
2) The second reason for better endurance among trained individuals is that their aerobic system switches on earlier, mostly because they have more oxidative fibers, so that the initial production of lactate is lower. 
3) Trained individuals utilize lactate more efficiently. Mitochondria are capable of utilising piruvate, and in the oxidative fibers piruvate is produced from lactate. 
 Fourth reason for better endurance – increased volume of the circulating blood. This, in turn, results in the reduced concentration of produced lactate.
The role of the heart. 
Endurance training leads to the dilatation of cardiac ventricles. This, in turn, makes cardiovascular system more efficient, in the way that the same cardiac output – the amount of blood the heart is capable of pushing though per minute – is achieved by fewer contractions. Training of the heart is a separate topic and will not be discussed here. 

Three types of exercises
All types of exercises utilised for the training of grapplers can be divided into three types. 

Effective exercises. 

  • Dynamic, maximal anaerobic power, to failure – facilitate the development of myofibrills in glycolytic and intermediate muscle fibers
  • Stato-dynamic, of maximal anaerobic power (100%), to failure (pain) – develop myofibrills in the oxidative and intermediate muscle fibers
  • Dynamic and stato-dynamic, of maximal alactic power, done to less than ½ of the limit, performed the light local muscular fatigue, repeated after normalisation of acidosis – facilitate some increase of the myofibrills and mitochondria in the glycolytic and intermediate muscle fibers
  • Dynamic exercises of near maximal power (90%), done to less than ½ of the limit, performed till light local muscular fatigue, repeated after the elimination of acidosis – facilitate some increase of the myofibrills and mitochondria in the glycolytic and intermediate muscle fibers
  • Dynamic exercises of submaximal (60 – 80%) power, done to less than ½ of the limit, performed till light local muscular fatigue and repeated after the elimination of excessive acidosis – facilitate some increase of the myofibrills and mitochondria in the glycolytic and intermediate muscle fibers

Harmful exercises.

  • All exercises of near or sub-maximal anaerobic power, as well as those of maximal aerobic power performed to the limit and causing excessive acidosis (pH < 7.1, lactate > 15 nMoll/L).

All other types of exercises have little useful effect for the development of endurance among grapplers. 
According to Selouyanov there are two ways to increase endurance and strength in skeletal muscle: increase the number of myofibrills and increase the number of mitochondria. Both are achieved differently in glycolytic (and intermediate) and oxidative muscle fibers, therefore we are left with four training modalities. 
In order to increase myofibrillar mass four factors must be present. 

  • Reserve of amino acids in the muscle cell (provided by consuming protein)
  • Increased concentration of anabolic hormones as the result of mental strain
  • Increased concentration of free creatine in muscle fibers
  • Increased concentration of hydrogen ions

Increasing the number of myofibrills in the glycolytic muscle fibers.
I suspect this part will make quite a few of us cringe. However, the goal of this post is to convey Selouyanov’s opinion on optimal training, so bear with me here. [Editor’s note: In effect, Selouyanov is about to ignore a core doctrine of Pavel Tsatsouline’s, namely the taboo against training to failure.] Glycolytic muscle fibers are activated when maximal muscular effort is required and no earlier. Therefore (according to the good professor), the growth of glycolytic muscle fibers can be achieved only by utilising weights of of maximal or near maximal intensity. The following conditions have to be present:

  • Intensity of maximal or near maximal intensity – more than 70% of 1RM
  • Exercise is performed to failure, i.e. to full exhaustion of CPn and achievement of high concentration of free creatine
  • Number of repetitions – 8 – 12. Last couple of reps have to be forced (with the help of a partner)
  • Rest – 5 minutes. Should be active, aerobic activity at HR of 100 – 120/min, this helps to utilise lactic acid
  • Number of sets: 7 – 9 if the goal is growth, 1 – 4 for tonic effect
  • Number of training sessions per day – one or two, depending on the intensity and athlete’s condition
  • Number of sessions per week – synthesis of myofibrills takes about 7 days, this is how long the athlete should rest after a training session done to the limit.

Myofibrillar hyperplasia in the oxidative muscle fibers
The method for developing myofibrills in oxidative fibers is similar to that for glycolytic muscle cells. With the exception that exercises are performed without relaxation. In that case the capillaries in the muscle are compressed, limiting circulation and leading to the hypoxia of the muscle fibers and the accumulation of lactate and hydrogen ions. 
I suspect this works similar to the occlusion (Kaatsu) training that became somewhat popular in the recent years. Selouyanov believes that mostly slow/oxidative muscle fibers grow under these conditions – Smet. 
To get the idea of this method imagine a barbell squat. Except that it is performed in the way that doesn’t allow for the pause at the top, with incomplete range. This way the muscles are continuously contracted to one degree or another, and after 20 – 30 seconds you get the burn, which is the desired effect. 
The conditions for the efficiency of this method are as follows: 

  • Intensity – medium: 20 – 40% of 1RM
  • No relaxation pohase during exercise, the muscles are continupusly contracted
  • Tempo and duration – slect the weight so that the athlete can perform 25 repetitions in 30 seconds. Last few repetitions should cause significant pain.
  • Rest – 30 seconds (active)
  • This exercise is performed in series of 3 – 5 sets. 25 reps in 30 seconds equals one set.
  • Number of series in one session: 1 – 2 for the tonic effect, 3 and more for growth.
  • Number of sessions per week – exercise is repeated in 3 – 5 days.

There is no mention of rest between series. I suppose it is several minutes, until the muscles feel relatively fresh.
Selouyanov recommends doing exercises aimed at growing muscle fibers at the end of the training session and better in the evening. If other types of training is done after this the reduction of glycogen can negatively interfere with the protein synthesis and impair growth. 
Development of mitochondria in skeletal muscle
Formation of mitochondria is controlled according to the principle of the functional criteria. According to this criterion, mitochondria that cannot properly function are eliminated. 
One of the natural factors leading to the destructurisation of mitochondria is hypoxia (e.g. being at altitude) and accompanying anaerobic metabolism. Similar processes occur during anaerobic training. 
Several generalisations can be made in regards to mitochondria: 

  • Mitochondria are energy stations of the cell and supply ATP by aerobic metabolism
  • Mitochondrial synthesis exceeds the destruction during conditions of their intensive functioning (oxidative phosphorilation)
  • Mitochondria tend to appear in the areas of the cells where the delivery of ATP is required
  • Intensive destructurisation of mitochondria occurs when the cell is functioning at high intensity in the presence of anaerobic metabolism which leads to the excessive and prolonged accumulation of ydrogen ions in the cell

Based on the above it is possible to develop methods of aerobic development of the cell. Every skeletal cell contains three types of muscle fibers. 

  • Those that are activated regularly during every day activity (oxidative)
  • Those activated only during training requiring moderate muscular activity (intermediate fibers)
  • Those that are seldom activated – only during maximal or near maximal effort, such as jumps, sprints etc. (glycolytic fibers)

In well trained individuals oxidative muscle fibers are maximally adapted. In other words, the number of mitochiondria in these muscles cannot be developed any more. It has been demonstrated that aerobic training at the level below anaerobic threshold in well trained athletes has zero value. 


Therefore, in order to increase aerobic potential of the muscle fiber it is necessary to build structural basis – new myofibrills. New mitochondria will then develop around these myofibrills. There is a special methodology which has been tested: interval training using two exercises. For example, pushups and pullups from low bar (unloaded, so that the feet are resting on the ground). 


General principles of such training are as follows: 

  • Exercises are performed at low intensity, i.e. 10 – 20% 1RM
  • Exercise is performed at medium or fast tempo
  • Full ROM is utilised
  • Duration – until early signs of local muscular fatigue
  • The template – 5 – 8 repetition of one exercise is followed by 5 – 8 repetitions of another without rest – that is 1 set
  • No pauses between sets
  • Number of sets – 5 – 10 (determined by the degree of fatigue) – that’s 1 circle
  • Number of circles in a session – 1 – 5 (fatigue and is determined by the glycogen stores in muscle tissue)
  • Session done at maximal volume can be repeated after 2 – 3 days, after glycogen stores are restored

Selouyanov on Endurance (Pt. 1): A Guest Post by Dr. Smet

Russian training methods and Russian sports science. Raise your hand if you (a) love these things but (b) don’t read Russian. Then you probably owe almost everything you know to Pavel Tsatsouline, THE great interpreter of that subject and almost the most influential voice in American exercise. Pavel created an appetite for English-language popularizations of Russian training research much greater than any one man can satisfy, even a pedagogical genius like Pavel. Today guest author “Dr. Smet,” a Russian-educated physician practicing abroad, takes us behind the curtain of Pavel’s latest book for a direct look at some of its source material. Dr. Smet’s blog Girevoy Sport After 40 is required reading for lean solid dogs, lazy badasses, and grapplers and kettlebell competitors. He has graciously allowed me to cross-post his original piece. -Dog in Chief

Pavel Tsatsouline has finally published his long-awaited book on endurance training, the Quick and the Dead. Despite the hype, in the end I was underwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong: the book has useful information but, as it makes clear on the last page, it is a long infomercial for the StrongFirst Strong Endurance seminar.

Victor Nikolaevich Selouyanov (1946-2017)

The material in the book is based on the research of a few Russian sport scientists and coaches, most notably Victor Selouyanov, previously mentioned in my blog [Girevoy Sport After 40 -ed.] in the post “The Heart is not a Machine.” Selouyanov was a bit of a renegade, and because of disagreements with the science establishment he never completed his doctorate. Nevertheless, his contribution to the understanding of training endurance was invaluable, and Russian sports science is still bitterly divided between his followers and opponents.

Selouyanov wrote several books, among them two that are of interest to me: Physical Preparation of Grapplers and The Development of Local Muscular Endurance in Cyclical Sports. Both deal with endurance, and Selouyanov’s concepts allow a systematic approach to training endurance in pretty much any sport. I will briefly and loosely summarize the most relevant parts of the book for grapplers (my current love).

Muscle fibers

From practical point of view Selouyanov was talking about two distinct groups of muscle fibers: glycolytic and oxidative. Glycolitic muscles are capable of producing great force, but because they are not very good users of oxygen they get tired quickly – in a few seconds – and are not very useful for activity that requires endurance. Oxidative fibers, on the other hand, do not produce as much force, but are virtually impossible to fatigue in aerobic conditions. Their power production drops from maximal to about 80% and stays there for a long time.

What gets oxidative muscle fibers at the end is the accumulation of lactic acid and, more precisely, hydrogen ions and the resulting acidosis. It happens if the production of lactate exceeds its elimination, which happens when you demand too much work from your muscles.

Oxidative muscles are good users of oxygen because of large number of mitochondria in them. Mitochondria are “power stations” of the cell where oxidation – the reaction between various substrates and oxygen – occurs, which results in the regeneration of ATP, the fuel that feeds the muscle fiber and allows it to contract.

Therefore, in order to develop endurance you have to do two things: build myofibrills (units of which muscle fibers are composed) and build mitochondria around them.

Classification of training loads based on long term adaptation

Methods of training are aimed at changing the structure of muscle fibers in the skeletal and myocardial muscle, as well as other systems (endocrine, for example). Every method is determined by several parameters that reflect the external features of a given activity: intensity of contraction, intensity of exercise, duration (repetition, series of the actual duration of exercise), rest interval and the number of sets or series (explained later). Each method activates internal processes which reflect immediate biochemical and physiological effects of a given training method. The final result is long term adaptation, which is the actual goal of using a particular training method.

For the sake of brevity I won’t spend much time on the internal processes elicited by each training method. I assume everyone reading this is a practitioner and is more interested in the description of the method and the long term adaptation it causes.

And so the methods are classified as follows.

1. EXERCISES OF MAXIMAL POWER

External features:

  • Intensity of contraction – 90 – 100%
  • Intensity of exercise – 10 – 100%. 

Barbell squats and bench press, for example, are activities with low intensity of exercise, but high intensity of muscle contraction. Throws performed with the wrestling dummy in high tempo and low rest intervals is the example of high intensity of both muscular contraction and exercise. 

  • Duration – usually short
    • Strength exercises are usually done for 1 – 4 repetitions
    • Speed-strength activity – up to 10 reps
    • Speed exercises – 4 – 10 seconds
  • Rest intervals – depends:
    • For strength exercises – 3 – 5 minutes
    • Speed-strength exercises – 2 – 3 minutes
    • Speed exercises – 45 – 60 seconds
  • Number of series/sets depends on the goals. 
    • So called “developing” sessions use 10 – 40 sets
  • Weekly frequency depends on the goals. 
    • If the goal is to develop myofibrills in the muscle fiber the series is performed to failure
    • If the goal is to develop mitochondria the series are performed to light fatigue

You just witnessed a fairly common phenomenon seen in Russian literature: the discordance of content and the title. This is exactly how it is in the text: weekly frequency – to failure or not, depending etc. It doesn’t make sense, I know, but we will have to forgive the good professor. – Smet.

Long term adaptation. 

  • If performed to failure, this method leads to the increase of myofibrills in glycolytic and intermediate muscle fibers
  • If done to mild fatigue – leads to the increased phosphorylation in glycolytic and intermediate fibers, eventually leading to the increase in mitochondria

2. EXERCISES OF NEAR MAXIMAL POWER


External features:

  • intensity of muscular contraction – 70 – 90%
  • intensity of exercise – 10 – 90%
  • Example – barbell squat or bench press done for more than 12 repetitions
  • If you increase the tempo of exercise and reduce the periods of contraction and relaxation of muscles, you turn these exercises into speed-strength type. Examples include jumping and throwing wrestling dummies

Duration:

  • generally 20 – 50 seconds
  • strength exercise are performed for more than 12 reps
  • speed strength exercises – 10 – 20 reps
  • speed exercises – 10 – 50 seconds

Rest intervals:

  • for strength exercises – more than 5 minutes
  • speed-strength activities – 2 – 3 minutes
  • speed activities – 2 – 9 minutes

Weekly frequency:

  • This method is aimed at increasing the power of anaerobic glycolysis
  • Currently there are no publications that demonstrate positive effect of near maximal exercises performed to failure.
  • However, numerous studies show deleterious effects from this type of exercise.

Long term adaptation:

  • most effective for increasing myofibrilles in glycolytic muscle fibers
  • no increase in mitochondria
  • If terminated well before failure or performed with pauses, this method leads to the development of mitochondria in glycolitic and intermediate fibers: there is no excessive acidosis in the muscle cell, and lactic acid is eliminated during rest. 

There is a method used by Russian athletes, called 10×10. An example in the video below:

Grigor Chilingaryan, one of the specialists from the laboratory of sports adaptology that was founded by Prof. Selouyanov. Start at 3:00

The session consists of three exercises: pushups, jumps and pullups, all done for 10 reps in a circuit, for ten rounds, the intensity –  about 80%. As you can see, the athlete never comes close to failure, and each rep is follower by a short rest – which gives the muscles a chance to get rid of lactic acid and avoid acidosis. This is the example of near maximal training without destroying the body. The coach recommends starting with lower rounds and building up gradually. 

To be continued

“A Mere Tourist on Planet Ultra”: D-Day Goruck Heavy AAR, Pt. 1

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Goruck Heavy (May 31 – June 1) commemorating D-Day. San Francisco. Thirteen entered (eight men, five women), ten finished. These are the lessons I learned, first about individual performance (part 1), then about us as a team (part 2), then about my gear choices (part 3).

Absolute Strength and Strength-Endurance

Absolute strength is essentially one-rep max strength, as opposed to relative strength (i.e. relative to your bodyweight) or strength-endurance, the capacity to do a lot of reps.

I confirmed my impression from last year that GORUCK events reward absolute strength. Strictly speaking, it might not seem like a “reward,” because you carry more and heavier weights for your team, but you receive the elemental joy of being able to do that for them. For the heaviest coupons, some teammates will lack the strength even to budge them, and others will be able to pitch in bravely but at an unsustainable cost. Ultimately, those top-end coupons must devolve onto a bull-necked, big-thighed few who have large enough reserves of absolute strength that they can spend pretty heedlessly without wrecking themselves.  

That is a good time to be strong. If you are strong, you can give your teammates a gift that really means something: you can take on pain for them. No one can walk for them, no one can do their pushups for them, but big weights are different. If you are strong, you can take the sandbag from the small person and the exhausted person and spare them the punishment because it will cost you far less than it will cost them.

Absolute strength at Goruck is like carrying a gun: “Seldom do you need it, but when you do, you need it very badly.”

Granted, GORUCK events are not strength events, so there are few times when anyone needs to lift something at 90+% of 1RM. But I’d still classify them as trials of strength-endurance. That is, they test your ability to display sub-maximal strength over and over with limited rest. In my approach to strength-endurance, as in many other things, I follow Pavel Tsatsouline’s strategy: if you bump up your absolute strength through high volume, you’ll improve your strength-endurance too. As you raise your one-rep max in weighted pullups, for example, you need less and less effort for each bodyweight pullup and can crank out more reps when you need to.

Speaking of pullups, here alone among bodyweight exercises did I not tire out. For the PT test we cranked out 12 sets of 6 pullups, and to my surprise I found these easy. Three cheers for the “lazy strength” approach of high volume with low intensity!! Unfortunately, we did a lot more pushups (including burpees) than pullups, and I sucked. I’d like to whine about how, with my injury, I was reduced to three weeks of pushup training, but there’s a larger issue: I have always neglected pushups. Had I valued them like pullups and kettlebells, I would have put in a few hundred thousand reps over the years and developed a pushup foundation of granite. With kettlebells I’ve accumulated a million reps, so even if you imprisoned me without a single kettlebell—oh cruel fate!—as soon as I was liberated, in two weeks I’d have my groove back and once more make the 32kg bell my plaything. To a lesser extent, that’s true of pullups too. But I don’t have that kind of foundation with pushups, so I paid for it. If the cadres had wanted to smoke us in PT, and if they had “performance dropped” people who couldn’t keep up, I would have been in serious trouble. So guess what’s never going to happen again!

Aerobic base

Speaking of pushups, Cadre Edge taught us some funky breathwork out of the Wim Hof method that involved deep rhythmic breathing followed by all-out pushups on a breath hold. I had never tried this, or heard of it, but it works and I’m incorporating it into my morning Wim Hof routine of breathing and cold water.

And speaking of breathing, I had no trouble doing it! For the first time in my life, this former chubby kid wasn’t near the back of the pack in aerobic endurance. This was a wonderful thing, because for all the strength-endurance challenges, this activity is called “rucking” for a reason, and you need a big aerobic gas tank to do anythingfor 24 hours, so I felt wonderful being able to burn along at close to 14 minutes/mile and experience that as active rest. 

I’m still no endurance athlete, but I’ve graduated from being an awkward “exchange student” from strength sports to what Goggins calls at least “a tourist on planet ultra.”

So three more cheers for low intensity and high volume! As with “lazy strength,” not only do I thrive on LSD (long, slow distance), I really enjoy it. I probably put in 300 miles in the last three months, and I loved (almost) every moment of it. It’s a time for solitude and meditative quiet, with the moderately elevated heart rate and rhythmic breathing that naturally inclines us to flow and trance states.

Spirit and psyche

I was more composed this year than last. There was no repeat of last year’s surf torture experience of existential horror at the wind’s shrieking, freezing hands pulling me into a tomb of pitiless entropy. Of course I knew that I was safe and not going to die, but I was a quivering wreck and I felt a lonely understanding that nature was prepared to annihilate me with as little notice as it would give a bug who drowns in a swimming pool. This year, there was none of that.

Nor was I tormented by a horrible inner soundtrack. I’m tragically susceptible to songs getting stuck in my head, and last time it was a Rod Stewart song and a Russian rap whose title roughly means, “Fuck you, biyotch.” It was terrible, a true torment. I’m not joking. Stop snickering. So this year I took drastic measures and stayed away from all music for a couple of days and ran a mantra in my head. Once we reached go-time, the mantra ran on an infinite loop all night and all day. Much better!

Not quite who I expected to show up at a GORUCK challenge.

Strangely, I also had a couple of … “experiences.” It would be a stretch to call them visions, but during Cadre Edge’s first breath session I lost all sense of time and finitude for awhile and woke up (for lack of a better word) to an image of Shiva Nataraja dancing behind a very, very thin curtain. During the second session, which felt head-splitting (in a constructive way), I saw what I interpreted as Krishna in his cosmic form standing in front of the sun disk.

Fuel and hydration

I had the right idea but screwed up the execution by not drinking enough. As far as I can remember, the whole time I only drank 10L, even though I had access to more. That is about 25% less than I thought I would drink, and since my electrolytes were in my water, I wasn’t getting enough. Two or three times I cramped up suddenly and had to mooch some powder off of Mike the generous forester, who is no stranger to outdoor work and had electrolytes up the wazoo.

Nor was that the first time I have wound up short of electrolytes, so that is another item for my Never Again List.

Fueling went alright. Normally low-carb or downright keto, I planned to eat 25g of simple sugars per hour during the event. The idea is that because as a keto athlete you are fat-adapted, you can get away with eating half the carbs of a sugar-burner during a race and avoid GI trouble. And that worked perfectly. I got most of my calories from Tailwind powder dissolved in my water, supplemented with some caffeine additive and about ten tubes of GU. (Hint: Try the French toast flavor! I owe Lean Solid Girl big time for turning me on to those.)

In all, I ate about 3500 calories during the race, a little more than planned but with no ill effect at all. And according to my awesome Tanita scale, I used up a little under half of my body’s supply of fat and dropped from 12% to 7.5% body fat. That is instructive, because when camping I seldom take much food, instead subsisting mostly on bodyfat because it’s just so convenient to eliminate a lot of weight and bulk from my pack. That is one of the rewards of eating keto that compensate for the inconvenience. However, I can see that I’m not leaving myself much margin for safety in remote country. Since I like to camp far from human contact, where a broken leg could mean real trouble, I shouldn’t be quite so cavalier about relying on what turns out to be just a two-day supply of fat.

Heat and Cold

“Weather more than any other variable can break a motherfucker down fast.” –

Goggins

This time I handled the weather much better, thanks again to Lean Solid Girl, who introduced me to the indispensability of a polypro base layer. On a couple of our misadventures, I ended the day soaked, cold, and even jackhammering while she stayed dry and happy. The difference? Polypro and Goretex. So I’ve made a standing rule that I must always have both in my pack.

That was good, because the oceanside wind was outrageous. If I had dressed as usual in short shorts and a cotton shirt, I would have been in trouble. I even got to see what would have been my fate. One of our teammates was very lightly dressed, and though he started the night as a top-level performer, come daylight I watched him drained of strength and awareness hourly as his body relegated him to “survival mode” and burned more and more of his precious energy just trying to keep his temperate stable. In the final half hour, I legitimately wondered if I was seeing a man swirling the drain into serious medical trouble. He had unbreakable mental fortitude and didn’t quit even when I thought he might pass out, but I was pleased not to be confronted with that choice.

Part 2. Part 3.

The Tao of the Lazy Badass

“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)
A difficult book, but the most important one I know.

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.”

Allyson Felix knows the Tao of the lazy badass. Her coach, Barry Ross, keeps his athletes fresh and unfatigued in training. See Easy Strength.

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.”

Your author. Not a badass, but I make up for it in laziness.