The Power of Community – an underrated tool

funny-aerobicsThe other day my daughter had to prepare a short talk on ‘spectators’ and their influence on her life. She started off by stating that two is better than one and then went on to describe how we all are spectators of each others’ lives and that merely standing by and observing doesn’t cut it and that it is only when we give something of ourselves that we truly get involved in the game and transform ourselves from passive onlookers to active participants, thereby tasting what life is really about. A proper mouthful for a 16 year-old.

It made me think. On how many roads have I embarked just to be turned around without reaching my intended destination. Dozens, no, more. Now, with the power of hindsight, I’m not in the least bit surprised that on each of those journeys I’ve set off alone.

I won’t bore you with the tearful details of each (perceived) failure but I will say this: Had I embarked on those journeys WITH someone or at least FOR someone other than myself, I would in all likelihood have reached the destination.

The power of community is often overlooked and underestimated. It is especially true if your goal is reaching a place where you’re fit and healthy. Improving your health (and therefore your fitness) requires focused intention and consistent effort. It requires discipline when it comes to making daily choices. What it comes down to is changing habits and as we all know, changing habits is hard. Especially if you’re trying to do it alone.

Being part of a community, or harnessing the power of ‘togetherness’ is a powerful tool. And it is out there, and it is free. Being engaged in community will improve your health – and not just physically. Conversely, isolation will prevent you from becoming the best version of yourself. Alcoholics for example don’t get drunk in groups, they do however try to heal in groups.

Here’s the kicker: Health habits are contagious. For example, if you spend time with people who exercise, you are more likely to exercise. Same with eating healthy. The group you associate with often determines the type of person you become. This does not mean you should ditch all your fat friends. You are not only capable of being influenced, you can influence as well. If you keep healthy habits, friends and family are more likely to follow. Like I said, habits are contagious which means you can have a significant effect on those around you.

It won’t happen overnight however. You will most likely encounter some resistance. Chewing on a carrot while your friends are puffing away will draw the odd comment of resentment. By the way, that should be your sign that just maybe you’re associating with the wrong crowd.

And then there’s the small matter of ‘commitment’. To most commitment does not come naturally, we’d rather opt for the ‘no obligations’ route than be tied up, missing the point that commitment actually gives us freedom. The freedom to be who we want to be because it is only in the confines of relationships that we can let our hair down. Or fart out loud.

There is also comfort in knowing that we’re not alone in our battle to stay on track with our fitness and health goals. And being committed to a group or a couple of friends will cause them to be committed to you, dragging you along even on those days when you’re not feeling up for it.

You need not look far to start forging such bonds. Co-workers, neighbors, friends, parents of your kids’ friends – in today’s world of connections, groups and social media it should be quite easy to find a few like-minded individuals. A great place to start can be your immediate family. It’s a fact that couples who train together, are more likely to stay together so just maybe you don’t need to look any further than your better-half. After getting your better-half on board don’t be surprised if the kids follow suit. You might have started off thinking that you’ll be the inspiration but more often than not you’ll find that once those bonds have been established, you’re the one that is inspired for once you are surrounded by others who are just as committed to ‘loving thy neighbor’ as you are, you become the recipient of that ‘love’ as well as the giver of it. And only then will you transform yourself from a passive onlooker to an active participant in the joyous game we call ‘Life’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Magic of the EMOM – and keeping fit after 40

Don-t-count-the-minutes-make-every-minute-countI’m 44 years old and still like to think of myself as young and strong (I have a beautiful daughter and still need to be young and strong!). And that is hopefully the case for most of us 40+’ers still keen on being fit and healthy.

It’s not always easy though, to tailor whatever advice is out there to your specific needs. Take high-intensity training for example. For the last couple of years high-intensity training was and probably still is, the preferred training method for getting the best results in the shortest period of time. The advantage of going flat-out is well documented and of particular interest is the fact that it burns a lot of calories quickly.

There are a few pitfalls to consider before embarking on a high-intensity training regime and the first is your level of fitness and your ability to master the fundamental movements. If you’re unfit (overweight) and have poor mobility, you should sacrifice intensity and prioritize form. In other words, don’t ramp up the intensity if your form is going to go for a ball of crap. You’ll likely end up hurting yourself.

Secondly, there is no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to fitness and health. Just because high-intensity worked for someone else, following that exact same regime is not necessarily going to work for you. Your body will respond differently to high intensity training than a 20 year-old for example. You’ll require different recovery protocols than an elite athlete and you’ll probably need to ease into it gently.

A third thing to consider is that high-intensity training is not only physically demanding, it also takes its toll mentally. Pushing yourself into that ‘deep, dark place’ during every workout will drain away your motivation to get up and repeat the process. If workouts are no longer fun odds are that you’re going to quit sooner rather than later.

Enter the EMOM – an abbreviation for every minute on the minute. It is a CrossFit staple and something I find more and more useful every day. It works like this. At the start of each minute you perform a set number of repetitions of a particular exercise and after that you rest for the remainder of that minute and so on…

EMOMs allow you to be creative in a number of ways. Firstly you can choose a time domain suitable to your level of fitness. Just starting out you can for example kick off with a short and sweet six minute EMOM of 8 air squats and 8 sit-ups. By the end of six minutes you would have banked 48 reps (24 squats and 24 sit-ups), meaning you just lapped the guy on the couch.

You control the intensity. Say you’ve breezed through your 6 minute EMOM, the next time you could up the reps and up the minutes. Going for say, an 8 minute EMOM of 12 air squats and 12 sit-ups. Equating to double the number of reps (96) of your previous workout, taking you only two more minutes. You get the idea.

You can easily keep tab on your progress. Making progress is a great motivator for sustaining effort. By adding minutes and reps you’ll be able to get more and more work done in a measurable period of time. You can always add weight and keep reps and time the same for exercises performed with ‘objects’. EMOMs make it easy to measure things such as reps performed, training time, weight etc. Again, you get the idea.

And then there’s the mental side. Compare having to do 50 pull-ups followed by 50 burpees for time, with having to do a 10 minute EMOM of 10 pull-ups (odds) and 10 burpees (evens). Most people can’t do 20 unbroken pull-ups let alone 50. Nobody will be licking their lips for having to grind through 50 burpees. To put it bluntly, workout 1 sucks while workout 2 seems doable. Doable because its broken up into bite-size chunks. I’ll jump up for 10 pull-ups knowing that it’ll probably take me 20 seconds thereby rewarding me with 40 seconds of rest before having to do it again. I’ll be much less enthusiastic about jumping up for 50 pull-ups knowing full well that I’ll probably fatigue by rep 20, fall down from the bar, not likely to be jumping up to complete the reps anytime soon. Go ask any guru how to eat an elephant and they’ll tell you ‘one bite at a time’. EMOMs make a seemingly impossible task seem manageable and if you perceive something to be manageable you’ll be up for it.

Truth be told, the possibilities are endless. You can do a different exercise every minute (on the minute), or you can do the same exercise for every minute. You can take a 5 minute breather between EMOMs and do a couple of EMOMs thereby burning a significant number of calories in a relatively short period of time. Training in, or with EMOMs are highly productive and from an injury perspective much safer than just going for it until you drop. It’s even fun.

Next time you’re dreading the prospect of completing a challenging workout, set the timer and work your way through it minute by minute and get it done.

LifeFit – The type of fitness we really want

happyScientists and fitness fanatics alike have long struggled to define “fitness”. At first it was a purely physical thing. You strap something around your chest, jump and down or go for a run and the “device” will tell us whether you’re fit or not. This conclusion would be reached with reference to things such as VO2 Max, resting heart-rate and how wide your nostrils open when chased by a polar bear. All purely physical parameters.

Nowadays lines between fitness and health have become blurry. And thank goodness for that. You can’t really have the one without the other. If you’re physically fit chances are you’re healthy as well. And if you’re doc is satisfied that you’re healthy you’d at least be able to take the dog for a walk which bestows upon you some sort of fitness.

Physical fitness on the other hand, warrants a discussion on its own. Who’s fitter? The Kenyan that can run until the sun comes up or the body-builder that can bench-press a house? Greg Glassman would argue that neither one is fit. The one has loads of endurance and stamina and the other lots of power. The Kenyan can’t pick up a bag of dog food, having sacrificed power and strength for stamina and endurance while the body-builder can’t run around a track without life-support.

Glassman argues that there are ten physical ‘skills’ and that you’re only as fit as you’re competent in each of the ten skills (stamina, endurance, power, speed, strength, balance, agility, flexibility, coordination and accuracy). According to this the heptathlete would be fitter than Usain Bolt or Tom Walsh. I tend to agree.

What then would it mean to be LifeFit? Or fit for life? If fitness means to have some form of competence in each of the ten physical skills, LifeFit would mean to be that plus having some competency in the ‘other’ skills required to navigate life’s choppy waters. Putting up with your mother-in-law for a month requires endurance, even flexibility, just not the physical type. Mental endurance and flexibility are required. Helping an elderly lady carry her groceries across the street takes some form of physical strength but also a certain resolve or attitude. Same with pulling out a chair or opening a door for your wife. Without the necessary coordination (physical attribute), your plan to build ‘credits’ can have the opposite effect. It requires an awareness.

Glassman’s list of physical skills is exhaustive. I can’t think of any other physical skills I’d like to add to determine or define physical fitness. The list of the ‘life-skills’ are not so clear-cut but here’s mine:

  • love (I know, sounds corny but love always wins – just ask Morrie);
  • joy
  • peace
  • patience
  • friendliness
  • kindness
  • faithfulness
  • humility
  • self control

Like Glassman, I’d argue that your happiness will only be determined with reference to your competency in each of the above ‘life-skills’. Improvements in coordination, agility, balance and accuracy comes about through practice. Whereas improvements in endurance, stamina, strength and flexibility comes about through training. Power and speed are adaptations of both practice and training.

Likewise, improvements in patience, friendliness, kindness, faithfulness, humility and self-control comes about through practice (and a bit of training) while love, joy and peace are the result of ‘adaptations’ of such practice and training. Go out in traffic and practice not to boil over when a taxi changes lanes without warning. Go stand in a queue in the bank and offer your place up for an elderly. Buy a cup of coffee for the person standing behind you in the queue. So many everyday situations can become your training ground. And training those skills will improve them.

Here’s an example. Next time your mother-in-law shows up uninvited, take a deep breath (patience), count to ten (more patience), smile (friendliness), give her a hug (kindness), tell her she looks wonderful (more kindness, friendliness, even humility), invite her in, offer her a cup of tea, listen to her stories. Easy, all of the above ticked. Love, joy and peace may not manifest immediately after she finished her cup of tea but your credit-rating will sky-rocket filling you with a sense of peace and even joy! And your wife will love you for it.

Improve your ten physical skills, improve your fitness. Improve your fitness, improve your health. Improvement in health will necessarily improve your life-skills. You’ll have more energy to engage in the activities that really matters. You’ll be able to mentally endure situations that would otherwise have caused you to have a minor seizure. You’ll have the discipline to go out and practice patience, friendliness etc. All because you feel good about yourself. If you feel good about yourself, you’ll be able to give more of yourself (which is nothing else than honing your ‘life-skills’).

The idea is to be fit for whatever life throws at us and the easiest first step towards achieving it is by getting off the couch and to start moving.

 

 

The Humble Kettle-bell – If it works for the Russians, it’ll work for you

IMG_20141115_085820A kettlebell is basically a cannonball with a handle. They come in different weights and nowadays in different colors. Going back, this evil-looking iron ball can trace its roots to Russia where it was used to weigh crops in the 18th century. Then in the 19th century strongmen with outrageous mustaches dressed in diaper-like pants used it to impress lonely housewives at  circuses.

Today the kettle-bell is firmly entrenched in the world of fitness as one of the premier tools to sculpt the perfect body. Comparing the kettle-bell to other ‘fitness apparatus’ it easily takes top spot for providing the most bang for your buck.

A 24kg (1.5 pood or 53 lbs) kettle-bell costs in the region of $60 or R950. Compare that to a Concept2 rower ($1050 or R15 750) or an entry level mountain bike ($1 600 or R25 000) and you must admit that it’s in a class of its own. Hell, even a pair of Asics running shoes ($160 or R2 400) costs more than double.

On a rower you row and with running shoes you run but with a kettlebell the options are endless. Wikipedia lists no less than 45 different exercises you can do with a ketllebell and if you have two, you can almost double that number. It also holds a door open in gale force winds.

The one exercise that does stand out however is the kettlebell swing. There are two versions. The Russian swing which sees the kettlebell travel up to eye-level and the American version which ends with the kettlbell above your head. There’s a big ongoing debate on which one is best and just because people are bickering about it, you should do both. I will not go into the merits of each (maybe in another post) suffice to state that chances of picking up an injury is greater doing American swings.

You need to know how to do a proper kettlebell swing before you actually train with them. Check out the links above and become familiar with the movement. Start out with a light bell and as you grow more confident and stronger, you can progress to something heavier. It is generally accepted that a 24kg bell for men, and a 16kg bell for women are the recommended weights.

And then there’s the matter of durability. I’d like to see you break a kettlebell. The thing will be standing there, staring at you long after you replaced your rower’s chain, wrecked your bike and worn out your shoes. It is like Chuck Norris, simply indestructible.

Here’s why you should do kettlebell swings:

The kettlebell swing burns fat at a rate of knots. Swinging kettlebells (Russian or American) is a high-intensity activity. Meaning you’ll burn more fat quicker compared to most other exercises. Strap on a heart rate monitor, set the timer and do as many kettlebell swings as possible in 5 minutes and see how you feel!

It functional. Meaning the muscles they strengthen are muscles you’re more likely to use in everyday life. Picking things up (like your kid) or loading things overhead (like getting luggage in the overhead compartment) will all be easier because of swinging kettlebells. It improves posture (targeting the core muscles) translating into more efficient movement. If you’re a runner, you’ll become a better runner, ditto for cyclists.

They’re efficient. Not only will you get stronger, you will also get fitter. Killing two birds with one stone. Grip strength in particular goes through the roof translating into heavier deadlifts and being able to do more unbroken pull-ups (both of which makes you stronger). Swinging kettlebells makes you strong. Period. Apart from strength gains swinging kettlebells will also increase your aerobic capacity. Following a simple progression you’ll be able to sustain a high heart rate for an extended period of time. It boosts the engine. If you’re planning on becoming a cage-fighter, go buy yourself a kettlebell.

It’s a full-body exercise.  Apart from targeting almost every muscle in the body it puts particular emphasis on the core muscles. Lower back, glutes, hamstrings, quads and hip flexors in particular. A stronger core equals a better you.

To summarize, if you want to get into shape (stronger, fitter, leaner) there’s not many ‘tools’ out there coming close to the kettlebell. No matter your fitness level, there’s a kettlebell which will suit you. No matter your sport or area of focus, swinging kettlebells will make you better at it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life in the Box

Even though I’ve climbed Kilimanjaro, cycled solo across the Namib Desert and been coaching functional movement for the best part of five years, there was a time in my life when I was the last person you’d want to consult for advice on how to get fit and change your life for the better.

I was unfit, overweight and generally sucked at relationships. Climbing a flight of stairs was not something I’d do voluntarily. Let alone invest time in becoming a better dad or husband. Grabbing a beer would get preference over playing with the kids. Because of a poor physical state, I was in a poor mental state. No energy for training translated into no energy for trying (anything).

And then came CrossFit, and the ‘Box’. The merits of this seemingly crazy fitness phenomena are not under discussion. You either love it or you hate it (or, like me, you adapt it). CrossFit jargon is descriptive and even funny. The ‘box’ is the place where you workout. WOD is the workout of the day and an AMRAP is as many reps or rounds as possible, to name but a few.

There’s also an uncanny similarity between life itself and what happens in the Box. I doubt whether Greg Glassman, CrossFit’s founder, did it intentionally but I’d like to give him credit for it anyway.

A CrossFit class starts with a warm-up. It is a period where you ease into things under the watchful eye of someone who cares about you. You are taught the basics. Like an air-squat for example. The simple act of squatting down and standing up. A movement underpinning most of the more daunting movements you’ll encounter on your journey towards physical well-being. You are required to do it over and over and over again until you can perform it with your eyes closed not even thinking about it anymore. Like wiping your butt.

The warm-up is a period of anticipation, anxiety and giggles. It’s a period spend in your comfort zone. Unless you’re new to CrossFit in which case the warm-up will feel like the workout. During the warm-up there’s time for idle chatter but there’s also that lingering feeling that some time very soon the shit will hit the fan…

The warm-up is usually followed by a skill- or strength session. After you showed proficiency in the basics, mastered the fundamentals, you progress to a session where you can test yourself. This session is specifically designed to equip you with for what is to follow. It is where you realize that you’re not as strong or as flexible or as accurate as you thought you were. It is a session during which doubt is a constant. It is also during this session where it dawns on you that you probably need expert coaching for certain movements. Like marriage counseling for example.

Then, before you can say Rich Froning, the buzzer sounds ‘3..2..1..Go!’ and you’re into the workout proper. Every man for himself. You dive in head first, and go as fast as you can. You sense that you’re falling behind. The Joneses already started round 2 and you’re still renting an apartment. The pace is frantic and unsustainable. You feel tired and alone. Where’s the coach? Can’t he see that some are cheating?

You adjust your pace. You even adjust some of the movements. Self-preservation becomes the focus. Life will beat the crap out of you, stupid to be doing it to yourself. You look around and see people of all shapes and sizes battling the same demons. You realize that you’re not alone. Inspiration comes from where you least expected it. There’s a guy with only one arm doing kettlebell thrusters. Your problem suddenly becomes insignificant. If he can do it, so can you.

Then, just as you are about to throw in the towel the buzzer sounds again, signalling the end of the workout. You collapse into a heap on the floor. You’re not quite sure what just hit you but you’re breathing and you’re alive. You survived. Again. You realize that the suffering you just endured made you stronger than what you were before. And as the smoke slowly rise from the ashes, so does a new opportunity. You look up at the white board relishing in the fact that you just completed something which only a short while ago seemed impossible to do.

The coach walks over and gives you a high-five, he was there watching all along. Bring on tomorrow!

The Inevitable By-Product and Burpees.

Burpees can make you happy. Really. First you need to know what a burpee is, and secondly you must comprehend what it means to be happy. The foremost is a complex four-stage physical movement, the latter a simple feeling.

“burpee” is defined as “a physical exercise consisting of a squat thrust made from and ending in a standing position.” A burpee is not something that happens to you. It’s something you physically do.

This is what a burpee looks like:

The term ‘burpee’ originated in the 1930’s. Named after Royal H. Burpee, a Ph. D. candidate in physiology at Columbia University. The man was dedicated to figuring out a seemingly straight forward concept: How to determine a person’s physical fitness. In order to measure physical capacity he made his subjects perform a simple four-step exercise (the burpee) and timed them. The army was particularly fond of the movement and added a push-up and a jump to Mr Royal’s original version. Today the burpee is firmly entrenched in fitness vernacular although dreaded, even feared by most.

Wikipedia lists no less than 20 different (sadistic) versions of this legendary movement and it has become the embodiment of physical exertion. There’s even something called ‘the burpee mile’ in which you do a burpee and a standing broad jump over and over for 1 600 meters. It takes over two hours to complete and is rather insane!

Happiness on the other hand is not nearly as complex as the burpee. It does however seem to be elusive (but now that you know how to do a burpee it shouldn’t be).

“happiness” is simply defined as “the state of being happy” while “happy” is defined as “feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.” A feeling is a fickle thing. It comes and goes. If you don’t keep on doing that something that gave you the feeling in the first place, it’ll go away.

Happiness therefore is always a work in progress. It is not a constant state, you have to work for it. You have to do something to experience it. Happiness is a form of action, same as a burpee. You’re not going to find it behind the wheel of a sports car or waiting for you in a three-story house, or in the arms of Stormy Daniels. It didn’t work for Donald Trump and it won’t work for you. If he rather did burpees instead of Stormy his fitness, albeit for office, would not constantly be doubted.

Ever wondered why a mother of two would want to get up at 05h30 in the morning to do burpees? Or asked yourself why a 40+ year-old dad would want to wake up at 4 am on a Saturday morning to go ride his bike in freezing temperatures?

I asked them, and here’s their answers:

Mother of two on waking up at 4h45 to go and workout:

” One should think that I exercise because of peer pressure – constantly being bombarded by images of ‘the perfect body’, the world’s message being that unless you look like this, you won’t be happy. But no, I exercise because it makes me feel good. I’m certain that being physically fit makes me a better version of myself. My work’s stressful. Raising two young kids is stressful. Going to the Box (that’s where CrossFitters do their stuff) is me escaping from all of that. It’s where I forget about my problems. It’s where I focus on myself. It makes me feel good about myself and because of that, I’m a better wife for my husband, a better mom for my kids. It is easier to give more of myself when I’m feeling good about myself. It enables me to be a better ‘me’ for those around me.”

You see, nothing to do with losing weight or looking good in a bikini.

The ‘cycling-dad’:

‘Exercising, training, whatever you like to call it, makes me feel good. Being out there on my bicycle gives me time think. Makes me realize what’s important and what’s not. Being fit gives me energy to say ‘yes’ to my son when he wants me to go kick a ball with him. It  makes me a better dad. Being a better dad makes me happy.’

Again, nothing about becoming leaner or having a lower resting heart-rate.

Back in the day Mr Royal H. Burpee might have created a yardstick for measuring physical capacity but he also unearthed a recipe for feeling happy. And it’s a simple one. Fall down, get up, repeat. Whatever your burpee looks like, go do it – get that feeling.