Archive for the ‘Exercise’ Category
Last year I wrote The Unconventional Gym Bag: 5 Cool Things You Don’t Use and a few months prior, I wrote about Building the Perfect Home Gym. As expected, my training has evolved over the past year – and will continue to evolve – and the contents of my actual gym bag (and home gym) have also been upgraded. I take my training seriously – more seriously every year – and making sure I’m up-to-date on the latest and greatest is part of the fun.
While I’m a strong believer in self-experimentation, I also “keep it real” with basics in every training session. Loads of bodyweight workouts for general physical preparedness, and of course moving big iron for strength skill work. My strength & conditioning sessions (the primary choice for my entire adult life) consist primarily of the basics: kettlebells, deadlift, squat, bench press, and military press variations. Depending on my goals at the time, I vary the sets, reps, tempo, rest periods, and “supplementary” work. Sometimes the goal is to get stronger or bigger, sometimes it’s to get faster, and sometimes it’s to get leaner. I enlist the help of an awesome, experienced strength coach every few weeks or months to make sure my form is spot-on, and that I’m constantly improving (something I shouldn’t have waited so long to do).
I’ve also evolved my programming and have found a pretty good rhythm. After tearing my right medial meniscus after a July 4th Crossfit workout last year, I realized the hard way that there is a big difference between exercising and training. As much as I loved Crossfit workouts, anyone will sweat and feel spent if pushed to the breaking point. Training is different. Training is personal. Training is about goals. Now, every time I enter the gym, I have a goal to hit. That’s what training is all about. No more random daily workouts with no structure or sound programming behind them.
So what’s new in my gym bag? Let’s get to it.
Some days you feel like absolutely nothing can go wrong. You’re on fire, unstoppable. Ideas are flowing, confidence is high, and you’re walking around with your chin up and your back straight. There’s no better feeling than knowing you’re at the top of your game. The world is your oyster. Everything you touch seems to turn to gold and you wonder how you were ever stagnant before.
Until the past few years, I had really only been able to identify these times when looking back. Now I’m acutely aware of them when I’m in them and I grab onto them and try not to let go when that train is rolling.
But these feelings never last long. Maybe a day or two, maybe a little more. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a full week of this superhuman ability to create things out of nothing without obstruction. Sooner or later things will return to normal and there’s no explanation why this happens. You just can’t self-motivate like you were able to the day before. Ideas are at a distance, just out of reach. You aren’t feeling flow and a day’s worth of work is taking two full days instead of just three hours.
It’s crazy frustrating when this happens. You try and recreate the environment, the feeling you had, and you just can’t. Your mind has moved on, your thoughts are elsewhere, and your current experience has been altered in some inexplicable way. And you don’t like it at all.
What happened? Well, nothing at all. It’s perfectly normal for creativity to ebb and flow like this. It happens to every single creative person dozens – even hundreds – of times throughout a year. It’s just not possible to keep anything running at its highest capacity all the time.
But are there ways to keep it running for as long as you can? Maybe. There are things you can do that will help but only in the sense that they may be able to prolong that window. There’s no guarantee that these things will work every time, but if they buy you an extra few days or a shorter period in the downswing, it could be worth it.
A few months ago I came to a long overdue conclusion about myself: I’ve never stopped thinking of myself as an athlete even though I haven’t played an organized sport for more than half my life.
This is a short story of why I haven’t posted here in a while. I’ve been pretty busy reorganizing some aspects of my life around this mini-epiphany.
When I was a kid I played baseball, football, practiced martial arts, and would beg anyone around me to catch whatever I was going to throw at them… for hours. The notion of treating my mind, body, and emotions as seriously as an athlete would has stuck with me since those days.
When I was in school, being a “student athlete” was an achievement worth recognizing. Kids who would do well in school and sport were somewhat rare and it was obvious they had mastered a life skill so many others hadn’t.
Yet as an adult, it seems all we’re trying to do is survive. Somewhere along the lines, people give up on being extraordinary – to be that “student athlete” in life. They’re just trying to get through to tomorrow.
Through years of business, marriage, kids… ups and downs… my system is still running that base ‘student athlete operating system’. It forms the foundation of who I am despite the fact that I’ve never been very good at any sport!
Shortly after realizing this, I started embracing it more as a part of who I am. This meant thinking about myself as an athlete “in training” instead of as someone who “stays in shape”.
After more than 16 years in the gym, I’m finally starting to train smart. Quality over quantity, strength over mass, and health over ego. Fitness is a lifelong journey, something I fully expect to be doing until the day I’m no longer around these parts.
I’ve learned a lot of great things through training, been (mostly) able to keep exercise as a habit over the years, finally created my ideal home gym, and even branched out and tried all sorts of new stuff like running, swimming, kettlebells, and different martial arts. It’s been a fun ride to-date.
So what prompted the recent change in intensity? I don’t really know. But it’s been building for some time and, starting with the birth of my son last year, everything about my training got more… well, focused. Could it have something to do with the fact that I’m now a role model for a little boy who looks kind of like me? Maybe. Probably. I really don’t know.
One thing that’s clear is that my gym bag these days looks quite different from years prior. My training itself has gone back to the roots. I don’t use any sort of machines at this point; I stick to dumbbells, kettlebells, and fixed bars. Yet I’ve become more interested in using toys like the ones below to help me progress, and I like to have them with me all the time at the gym. It’s the geek in me.
In order to benefit from any of these items, you need to already have a base of both knowledge and fitness. Don’t jump right into any fitness program without doing the obvious stuff first like talking to your doctor and ramping your training up over a period of months.
Do you frequently find yourself staying focused on a single task until it’s complete, or do you fall victim to the "I’ll do it later" or distraction mentality? Are you able to walk past the table of donuts each time you see it, or do you give up and take a huge bite out of one? If you’re someone who struggles with self-control, or the ability to regulate your actions even in the case of overwhelmingly appealing stimuli, you’re certainly not alone. Most people the world over deal with the inability to self-supervise their actions on a consistent basis. The exercise of self-control is hard. Or at least people think it is.
It’s just so much easier to give in, isn’t it? Hell, it takes real effort to fight the urge, especially if restraint isn’t something you’re used to. More on that later, but first let’s take a look at exactly why self-control is important.
“Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.” — Jim Rohn
Self-control is the basis of all change; nothing can be transformed without first determining what needs to happen, and then being consistent and predictable in implementation over time. It is, in fact, the most important skill to have when it comes to achievement. Self-control is really the platform in which achievements are built upon. It’s an essential ingredient in any high performer’s personality, just as impulsiveness and “action without consequence” is central to the self-defeatist.
If you want to start modeling success, the most important thing you can do is to start exhibiting self-control.
Show me a successful person who doesn’t have a superhuman amount of mastery over his or her daily actions and I’ll show you someone who has benefited only from chance and circumstance – and that type of success is not repeatable or transferable. Anyone can win the lottery or sign a book contract, but it takes true dedication to be able to maintain success over time.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved to workout alone. While my first “official” workouts didn’t start until my 18th birthday – not coincidentally about 6 weeks after arriving at Cornell as a freshman – I spent a lot of time in my teens messing around with weights in the basement of my childhood home. We had a beat-up old bench with rusty plates and a few bars to go along with it… and it was heaven. Some of my best workouts to-date were in that (usually flooded) basement, and they didn’t require a Power Rack, a treadmill, or Freemotion cables.
Here I am, many years later, still longing for the same. They say some things never change. Over the last few months (and the next few really) I’m piecing together the home gym setup I’ve been thinking about for almost two decades. Below is my list.
First, a word about the investment required. Depending on your bank account and your tolerance for spending, the list below may seem extravagant… or perfectly reasonable when compared to a pricey gym membership. No matter how you slice it, different people have different priorities and not everyone wants to spend money to improve their overall health, mood, or strength. You can tell where I fall on that spectrum.
The great thing about having the ability to workout at home is that you have no excuses. Not a one. You can get a great workout finished in less than 20 minutes and you don’t have to wait for your turn to use any equipment. You can listen to whatever you want, you can wear whatever you want, and you can be in the shower 10 seconds after your last rep. The convenience simply can’t be beaten.
A couple months ago, I made the decision on a complete whim to become a runner. After years of self-identifying as an “athlete”, “martial artist” or a “lifter”, I dove into running with everything I had and studied it like I studied plant biology back in high school. I’ve learned a ton and feel like I may have found a new escape for myself.
If you’ve never run a mile, or if it’s been years since you laced up running shoes, keep reading. And if you’re an old pro, you might learn something new here, but I kind of doubt it
The obvious caveat is that all of this advice is coming from someone who’s probably a lot like you and not some ultra-marathoner or Tarahumaran. I’m not a “real” runner… yet. I haven’t finished a 5k (my first race is July 31st) or written a book about running 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 consecutive days. But ultimately that shouldn’t matter much, because unlike learning how to hit a 90mph fastball or drive a car, running is about overcoming the resistance to move more than anything. And that’s mostly a mental game… it shouldn’t take years of experience practicing impeccable form until you can run well enough to impart wisdom, it requires the will to get yourself up off your ass and onto the street.
That isn’t to dismiss the fact that running, like most physical activities, is something you can dissect down to the most minute detail. Ankle inversion, foot pronation, stride length, heel vs. toe running, etc. But I’m not at that level yet – probably never will be – and my guess is that you aren’t either. We’re just two wanna-be runners right now… so let’s start with the basics together. I’ll give you some links to follow when we’re done to learn more if you care.
First, a little background: I’ve always hated running. Loathed it with a real passion reserved only for instant chocolate pudding. There have been times in my life (college, mostly) where I ran pretty regularly but it’s been something I’ve dreaded the whole way through.
Yet running is the world’s oldest and simplest activity. Most everyone is born a runner… it doesn’t require a gym membership or any special overpriced equipment (like, say, biking does). Ear buds, running shoes, headbands, and special socks aren’t required in order to run. You just need two healthy feet and a bit of willpower and determination. I mean: you don’t even need to have a destination in mind, you could run in circles around your block and feel better.
And boy will it humble you. Running will teach you more about yourself than most other sport or activity. Mostly because it’s you against yourself and you’re in your own head most of the time… but also because it’s just plain hard. Exercise is meant to give you progressive resistance in order for you to improve, and running does that in spades. There’s always a new goal to be had no matter how accomplished a runner you are.
This October I’ll celebrate a personal milestone. 15 years ago on my 18th birthday, I started an intense strength training regimen while a freshman at Cornell University. At that time I was training for my Black Belt test in both Tae Kwon Do and Hap Ki Do and I figured a little extra strength and flexibility would help me when it came to that dreaded “break bricks and boards” part of the test. I didn’t know much at the time, just that lifting weights gives you muscle and protein is important for that – but that didn’t stop me from jumping in headfirst and giving it my all.
Over the last 15 years I’ve certainly had ups and downs. I’ve slacked off and felt completely out of shape for months at a time. I’ve also hit my stride many times throughout the years and realized that when I’m exercising regularly, just about everything else in my life comes into serious clarity. I’ve learned that for me, the benefits of strength training (and martial arts) are far more mental than physical. I’d tradeoff any gains in strength, size, or flexibility for the things I list below.
In 1999 I started a list of the things I’ve felt I’ve learned “in the gym” and I’ve been expanding on this list ever since. These are things that I learned as a kid (and as an adult) training in martial arts, and how I’ve since expanded my understanding through intense strength training in a gym environment. Just like other posts in the Exercise category, the things I list below are certainly not limited to the activities I perform. If you’re a dancer, a yoga practitioner, a cyclist, or a volleyball player, chances are a lot of these same lessons can be learned with your activity.
Physical conditioning, emotional strength, and mental focus are interrelated and natural precursors to one another. A strong body drives intestinal fortitude and a focused mindset just as a clear, focused mindset can develop a strong body. All three sides of the triangle are a requirement for the kind of focus this blog is all about; it’s hard to achieve self-actualization if you’re missing one of these prerequisites. This counter-balance is often described as mind-body-spirit in various spiritual practices.
It’s clear that training the mind in various ways (NLP, visualization, meditation) can help develop physical skill as much or more than rehearsal of the activity itself. But just as the mind drives the body, the body can drive the mind as well. Confidence and real strength can be derived from physical activity whether it’s through enhanced coordination, a sense of empowerment and control over something, or as an avenue for achieving flow.
Looking at empowerment and control alone, it’s clear that overcoming challenges – small and large – can increase self-esteem and confidence. And having confidence in your abilities in one area can translate to other areas of life, effectively parlaying success in one controlled arena to other potentially less controlled ones. Tony Robbins has his conference attendees walk on fire on day one of a retreat to show them how their limiting beliefs have been holding them back, and once they’ve done something they previously thought was impossible, they’re more open to tackling more personal challenges.
In many ways building muscle has this same effect on people.
Interested in learning a new dance step or knitting pattern? Always wanted to learn how to throw a curveball or how to surf? Learning something physical comes naturally to some people. We all know the type of person who can be shown how to do something quite elaborate and within 3 minutes is doing it themselves. For most of us however, doing something physical may not come naturally or easy even if the motivation is there.
Learning a new physical activity can be hard. You feel clumsy and awkward, you feel like you’re being watched like a hawk, and you consider quitting when you’re not getting it right. But remember: everyone starts where they are, and the best dancer/fighter/runner/juggler (or insert your interest here) was where you are now once in their life. No one is born with near-perfect coordination over their body, it always takes some time to build it.
A number of years ago I did some training at the Straight Blast Gym, one of the best mixed martial arts gyms in the world. Other than being thrown around the mat like a ragdoll by UFC champ Randy Couture (yes, I’m a name dropper), I had the privilege of training with someone who has had a profound impact on the way people train in modern martial arts. His name is Matt Thornton and the steps I’m going to outline are based on his steps for learning a new martial arts movement as covered in his original Functional Jeet Kune Do series. But this is certainly not limited to punching, kicking, or choking – as you’ll likely see, the same steps work just as well for learning just about any physical activity provided you want to do it well and do it “for real” (i.e. you don’t just want to pretend you can pull it off, you actually want to be able to pull it off in a real setting).