Web of Power

This TOJ, who studied English a long time ago, thinks that when Shakespeare had Hamlet say, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy" that one of the "things" he was referring to was myofascia, the connective tissue which is like a whitish web that weaves throughout the entire body, holding muscles and organs in place. And, as scientists over the past twenty years are figuring out, much, much more.

The myofascia plays a bigger role in movement and athletic performance than ever dreamt of in the conventional fitness paradigms focused on muscular strength and cardiovascular conditioning. While those are still important, the discovery of the role of connective tissue in enabling movement, in particular quick, powerful movements, is rapidly changing things.

For centuries, anatomists, kinesiologists, and coaches focused on the structure and function of isolated muscles, like the biceps, or muscles groups, like the shoulders. Connective tissue was a passive presence, designed by nature to support organs sort of like the asphalt road is held aloft by the spans on the Golden Gate Bridge.

However, as science probed the source of injuries, it became clear that the actual site of non-fractures is in the connective tissues, which also include ligaments and tendons. Of course the next question was why to the injuries occur and what can be done to make these tissues more resilient. Why are they so painful? Obviously they were being pushed beyond their capacity. But how?

This is where it gets really interesting. It has always been right in front of our eyes watching sports on TV, but invisible to the naked eye. Ever notice how home run hitters slightly turn their bodies counter to the direction of the ball then rapidly rotate their bodies towards it? Ever noticed how basketball players preparing for a dunk make a slight dip with their ankles, hips and knees before soaring towards the basket? The home run and dunk both start in the foot which is flexed hen unflexed (dorsiflexed then plantarflexed) unleashing a cascade of anatomy trains to generate force.

These powerful athletic movements are chosen for examples because what nobody had realized until relatively recently is that power is transmitted through connective tissue, just like a locomotive speeding down the tracks. In fact, one of the pioneers in this area is an integrative manual therapist named Tom Meyers who wrote a book about Anatomy Trains to identify the interplay of connective tissue with muscles and bones to enable movement and has even mapped them. If you want to feel an anatomy train as you're sitting reading this, hold your right palm on your back just above your hip bone. Lift your left knee slightly off the ground. Feel the contraction in the right side of your body?  

So why should a TOJ care?

Connective tissue is just like muscle - you either use it or lose it. For many people, their trains are sound asleep from under-use. Even for athletes, they can be underdeveloped if they are not routinely used in multi-planes of motion. Yeah, a person may be able to curl a lot of weight or run a marathon but can they (you) do what's in this video.

Meyers cites Parkour, basically urban gymnastics in which athletes turn everyday structures into tools for exercise and physical challenges, as an example of movements that maintain and develop your power trains. Check out this video:

Obviously, most of us, especially TOJs, will never have this level of body mastery. In physcial prowess, these English men rank with any elite athlete.

You probably noticed many of the Parkour training exercises are very familiar, yet there's something different and unusual. In my next blog, we'll explore just what's different in more detail, and how to tame these down so they are safe and doable.

TOJs, too, must maintain their web of power.  

Outer Limits

Sometimes we need a reminder of the wisdom in Clint Eastwood's great line in Dirty Harry: "A man's got to know his limits."

One of the hardest things to figure out is just what the limits of our physical abilities are. The longer I'm a TOJ, the more I realize that finding out what they are gets riskier. As you age (which athletically is just past 35, younger than many think), it's difficult to separate what's the natural fall off in speed, power, agility and strength versus just plain lack of motivation and discipline to push yourself as hard as you can to maintain these.

We're inspired by against all odds stories in athletics, like the crippled veteran who gets out of the wheelchair and finishes a marathon. Or the 50 plus guy who deadlifts several hundred pounds. They move us to try harder, longer, faster.

Recenty a friend in his early sixties ran his fastest time ever in the Moab Half Marathon: 01:36:15, an excellent time at any age. He's a classic example of what may be possible if you really go after it. He's worked obsessively hard for years to prepare for that performance. I hope he can keep it up because I know it's important to his sense of well-being.

However, I've been reading Lee Bergquist's Second Wind: The Rise of the Ageless Athlete, which recounts the stories of TOJ's in many master's level competitive sports. They live for their competitions. There are some inspiring stories, like my friend's, of continuous improvement, although those are exceptions. The rule is their performances are starting to falter because of aging and mounting injuries. Their limits are rising faster than they can neutralize them through training. Their days are numbered as competitors and you hear a tone of sadness and frustration, if not outright depression in their stories.

This TOJ let go of competition years ago. Exercise, for its own sake, is a joy of my life that I look forward to every day. But the pursuit of fitness can be as excessive and misguided as competition when a TOJ ignores Dirty Harry.

I already have a good routine that consists of running 2x/week, weight circuits 2x/wk, strength training 1x/week, kettlebells and bodyweight work 1x/wk, and a day of rest. Thinking I needed a challenge, I decided to attend a 35 minute bootcamp at our fitness center. A great trainer put on the music, and working with body weight, light dumb bells, and a weight bar, she took us through a Tabata routine (continuous fast exercise with 10 second rests) of fast squats, forward and side lunges, punches and kicks, and plyometrics (jumps). When it was over, I was drenched with sweat and pleased that I could still do it.

But two days later, my glutes and adductus longus were so sore I groaned when I got out of bed. I wasn't injured, but I'd taken my lower body to an outer limit for no good reason. I found out I could do it. A better question was should I? I missed my circuit training the next day and only did a light jog the following day, wincing with every stride.

For TOJs, just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should. A TOJ's got to know his limits.

Pedal to the Metal

Before getting underway with the gist of this blog, this TOJ wants to go on record that all exercise is good exercise. Whatever you like to do, do. Whether walking, biking, jogging, Pilates, whether alone, in a class, on a team, whatever it might be, go for it.

A few times in the past, I've suggested that sometimes it's a good idea to put the pedal to the metal and push your body very hard for a short period of time via High Intensity Training. Wait, wait! Don't click away! (I know most eyes on this blog don't fear sweat or a fast heartbeat anyway.)

Recently I've been studying stuff about senior fitness and aging. According to experts, this TOJ is an official member of the category called the "Young Old," which spans 65-74. When I read the articles by the PhD experts about the 65 year old threshold, it's alarming how cautious they are about exercise. You'd think we're like pieces of fine China, ready to crack and disintegrate at any moment. Their concern is not completely unfounded because many Boomers have sat on their butts much of their lives and are not physically ready for vigorous exercise. About half already have either an illness or musculoskeletal problem that limits their activity.

However, my concern is that frailty begets more frailty. Obviously nobody should put themselves at high risk for injury. And that's not necessary. Most risk can be removed by starting very slow, even below what you might be capable of, then systematically working up from there. By not pushing yourself a little, you accelerate the onset of frailty down the road.

A little high intensity exercise has amazing benefits. See this excellent discussion by Clarence Bass, a Master TOJ if there ever was one. Easy cardio is great, but there are some life-enhancing things that happen only when all the muscles are worked really hard.

Watch this short video of an older guy doing exemplary HIT workout that lasts about seventeen minutes. Here's what's worth noting:

First, he's on machines which are much safer than free weights for HIT because you can't get in an awkward posture that puts you at risk for injury when your muscles move towards failure.

Second, his trainer is making sure he keeps his form correct so only the targeted muscles are engaged (unlike the grunting twenty-year old guy doing a simple bench press with free weights who's arching his back and jerking his entire body to enlist every possible muscle to get the barbell up).

Third, he's using a weight he can lift only 8 reps, so he's building strength and using his fast twitch fibers (hence the powerful human growth hormones).

Fourth, he's keeping a brisk pace. He pauses only long enough to switch machines.

Fifth, he makes sure to use every major muscle group - shoulders, hips, legs.

It's that simple. Challenging, yes. But very doable. He's not collapsing, gasping for air.

Everyone can do this, at all ages. You can do it without ever going to a gym by using your own body weight in a series of calisthenics like push-ups (from your knees if that helps you), squats, lunges. If the latter two are too easy, you can make it more challenging by holding a plastic milk carton with whatever amount of water you can safely hold tight to your chest. Just move from one exercise to the other with minimal recovery.

Most days, it's fine to cruise along in a lower gear. A couple days a week you want to be like the Little Old Lady from Pasadena. Go, TOJ, go TOJ, go TOJ, go!

Old Dog, New Tricks

After years on remote trails and solo resistance workouts, this TOJ has been attending some fitness classes to learn more exercises and watch trainers use their skills to keep a group of people, with diverse ages and physical abilities, motivated and progressing - including me.

One class I've found right for me is twice a week circuit training. The class is held in a large room cluttered with exercise apparatus and non-class members who still have access for their workouts. Sometimes 15 people show up, sometimes 30. Bigger turnouts force our trainer, a smart and experienced young woman, to quickly add a circuit station to keep every member of the group active throughout the hour and not gobble up every device so the general public gets squeezed out.  

Circuit training consists of going station to station to perform an exercise targeted at specific muscle groups for a limited period of time. It's part cardio, part muscle endurance, part stability and mobility. The exercises are on machines,stability ball, Bosu's, platforms, with dumbbells or bands or your own body weight. At each station we exercise in two 25 second intervals, with 20-30 seconds of rest in between. Like with all exercise, in circuits what you get out of it is directly proportional to what you put into it. For example, during 50 seconds on a lat pull down machine, you can do a lot of reps and you are free to pick your weight. Within the time interval, you go at your own pace and biorhythms. Hammer it or slack off, your choice.  Every two weeks, the circuits change so you have new muscles engaged.

I see some real advantages to doing some classes (something I never thought I'd say because TOJs get set in their ways):

First, you'll do exercises that are more challenging than you would do on your own. We all tend to do what's easy for us. I'm very comfortable pushing up weight on the machines, especially the classic male stuff for pecs, biceps, lats, quads - squats, lat pulldowns, curls, presses. But there are a host of small, really important stabilizing muscles, especially around the hips and rotator cuff, that are much more important for well-rounded fitness, including balance and endurance, that are barely used when you grunt up a few bench presses. In most males, these muscles are weak. The circuits with stability balls and the Bosu (try doing a Bird Dog with your knee on the floor, then do it on a Bosu - even the baddest ass TOJ will tremble like Jello).

Second, whether you admit it or not, there's something about having other people around that makes you push a little harder. It's not really competition on the circuit because every one's on a different station. But just being in the class, you try to last the full interval or put the resistance at the edge of your range for a certain number of reps.

Third, when you always workout on your own, you can easily get in a rut where you do the same routine over and over. However, your body is really adaptable - if you don't mix up the exercises, the ones you continue to do get easier - too easy You no longer get all the benefits you might with more variety. Taking some classes mixes it up for you. You discover new ways to move, old muscles you haven't enlisted for a long time.

I've been wondering why so few males are in some of these classes. This TOJ has a new theory. Guys tend to think because they have a bicep (or used to) and can hit a softball into the outfield (or used to) or can run faster than most women on the same age in a 10K that they magically know all there is to know about their body and exercise. But it just ain't true. Worse, that irrational pride is setting them up to be more prone to limited mobility and more injuries as they age. Many times in the classes I find the women on, say, a stability ball, have much better muscle control, core strength, balance, and range of motion than the males. Male exercisers would be wise to learn from them by using their exercise regimens.

Males reading this might be thinking, "Over my dead body. I'm not getting on any pink colored stability ball."  Dumb. No wonder women outlive men. Then pick a blue one.

Sticky My Fingers

The other day this TOJ was trying to remember some details of what might be the greatest sports and exercise film ever made, even though it was just a 20 minute short. I don't know why I hadn't done this before, but I Googled it to see if by chance I could find a reference to it in cyberspace.  My heart soared when right in the top few lines was a link to the actual film on YouTube.

Yeah, there have been some classics: Chariots of Fire, North Dallas Forty, Pre, Field of Dreams, The Natural, Rudy, The Longest Yard, Somebody Up There Love's Me, Rocky, The Wrestler, Bull Durham, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, etc.

But none of them rivals Edmond Levy's "Sticky My Fingers Fleet My Feet." Both hilarious and poignant, it's  about weekend warriors, and is so great because it captures the psyche of aging amateurs, where there's no money, fame, or glory. If you're over 40 and compete at anything, you'll see what I mean.


Sticky My Fingers Fleet My Feet - Part 1

Sticky My Fingers Fleet My Feet - Part 2