Born to Lift

My daughter pointed me to this hilarious video on the barefoot running craze. The book Born to Run, about a tribe in northern Mexico that run ultra distances in primitive huaraches, launched a national mania this guy captures perfectly. The book implied that the way most civilized people run is wrong and that there was a conspiracy among prominent shoe companies to torture and maim the running public with over-padded clunkers (Bill Bowerman, Oregon track coach who spent thousands of hours of making the first Nike waffle sole, and ultimately died as a result from unknowingly inhaling noxious fumes, must have rolled over in his grave).

Like something out of a Monty Python movie, the book inspired armies of yuppies running 10Ks and marathons on asphalt, who are always searching for "the next best thing" to get an edge in the next Race for the Cure. Predictably, opportunistic shoe manufacturers introduced lines of so-called barefoot or minimalist shoes, which had fewer materials, especially underfoot padding, yet cost more than the shoes offering good protection. Getting more for less, the shoe companies laughed all the way to the bank.

Meantime exercise physiologists at Harvard were hard at work producing slow motion videos showing that less padded shoes encourage a runner to land gently on the mid-foot, not hard on the heel, resulting in fewer injuries. Of course, what they didn't mention is that you also run much slower. (Following their logic, you could walk and get even fewer injuries. Duh. That takes a PhD?)

I noticed in the latest Runner's World shoe issue that the minimalist craze is tapering -- the shoes are getting beefier again. Turns out you get injured running barefoot too, and still run slower than you hope, so people are returning to shoes with more padding.

Sorry, but there are no easy tricks to faster or easier running. You have to train by logging the miles. Sometimes you will get injured. You have to build aerobic and anaerobic capacity and feel like hell once in a while.  Even then, you will still have a pre-determined genetic mix of slow and fast twitch fibers that you can enhance some but not completely alter.

Not immune to the craze, a couple years ago I got some Vibram Five Fingers. I ran about ten yards on grass when I first got them and realized immediately they would hurt my lower legs and feet. However, I discovered they are great for lifting weights because they place you in a very stable position on a flat surface. I'm thinking about writing a book called "Born to Lift" about an old TOJ in Colorado who stumbles on a long lost tribe of Native Americans who possess enormous physical strength and endurance because they wear... 

Warming Up: The Real Deal

There are warm-ups, then there are real warm-ups. If you are going for a fitness run, you're warm-up can be as simple as starting with a slow jog for a half mile then gradually picking up your pace. However, if you are going to do any load bearing exercise, like lifting weights, you need to actually work up some sweat, like you have a slight fever.

In fact, you want to get your core temperature to around 103 degrees F. That's the point at which the collagen and elastin in your muscles and tendons are able to stretch or contract, as they will under resistance, without injury. The heat also improves the ability of fluids to move through and around muscle and connective tissue, as well as the synovial fluid in the moving joints, and thus perform better.

The video below demonstrates an excellent warm-up. What you'll see is not a namby-pamby little static stretch (like you see runners doing standing one one leg and pulling back the foot of the other to stretch the quadriceps) here and there, but an energetic, dynamic sequence in preparation for a more demanding workout.

A routine like this one is a real workout in itself. If you only had ten minutes to exercise, this would be a good one. Add a few more reps of a few of these exercises, like more push-ups, jumping jacks, and squats, and you'd give your heart and muscles some useful exercise even if you didn't do anything else.

Notice how the trainer activates all the major muscle groups and joints. Also, watch how he moves his body in all directions - up, down, laterally, rotating around. He moves without smoothly and without delay from exercise to exercise.

Try the sequence with him. If you can't do it as quickly, do what you can. If you can't do all of them, pick a few of the movements and master them one at a time. When you can do them all, you'll have a really good base of stability, mobility, and core strength to build on.

He's a good benchmark. When you can match him movement for movement and keep your breath under control like he does, you've arrived at a fitness milesone. Then you can ask yourself: What next?

A Tale of Two Exercises

I've been reading strength coaches Don John and Pavel's book, Easy Strength: How to Get a Lot Stronger than Your Competition. As a TOJ, I don't worry to much about my competition (what competition?), but books like this usually have some something relevant to fitness that's worth learning. John and Pavel (of Russian kettelbell fame) targeted this book towards strength training for performance-focused athletes and sometimes it really gets pedantic, like whether it's better to do weight lifting with laddering sets of 10, 8, 6, 4 or 4, 6, 8, 10. Answer: Who knows?

That said, it's a good read with some useful information. John and Pavel take turns offering their experienced advice and insights on various aspects of weight training. I found Pavel's especially interesting because he cites the work of several top Russian exercise physiologists whose work had been concealed for decades, like nuclear secrets, behind the Iron Curtain. For decades, the Russians dominated Olympic weight-lifting because they developed unique approaches to building strength and power, including plyometrics and the kettlebell.

Ironically, Pavel gives credit to a Danish researcher who recently discovered a different approach to kettlebell training called "overspeed eccentric kettlebell swings and snatches." Looking for an innovative way to use kettelbells in cardiovascular training, the researcher discovered that if you take a lighter kettlebell than you normally workout with and intentionally accelerate it during the descending part of the technique (sort of like you are hiking a football), generating a large momentum, then explosively pull it back up using your feet, arms, and lock out of the hips, with just 4 sets of 10 reps you get performance improvements in all kinds of other exercises like squats, jumps, lunges, and even agility and throwing. The point is, a lighter kettlebell (Russians pride themselves on heavy ones) swung at a higher speed produces benefits throughout your entire body (your kinetic chain) from head to toe.

Because the horn (loop) of the kettlebell will roll harder in your hand, Pavel even passes along a very simple suggestion by an American kettlebell coach to avoid wrecking your hands by ripping the calluses on your palm. Just take a sock and cut off a few inches of the elastic tube and pull it over your hand. The sock lets the kettlebell move as needed and provides both protection for, and adequate control with your fingers.

See what it looks like in the picture below. (I could still cut off another inch or so.) It works great! I expect some American entrepreneur to start selling Kettlebell Sleeves in neon colors any time.

And speaking of exercise, watch this video, posted by Facebook friend Don Andrew. It shows George Hood setting a Guinness World Record for holding an abdominal plank for OVER TWO HOURS!

Today the Super Bowl is on TV.  Some great athletes will perform. I'm not sure who to bet on. But I would bet that none of the players who set foot on the field could pull off  the feat of strength and endurance accomplished by this 54 year old. A true TOJ!