I have always resisted driving places to get exercise. I do it, to spend time at cool outdoor (and even indoor) places, but each time I have to get over thinking, “But I could just run/walk/whatever right here and not have to drive at all!”
I think I’m over it. Post-pandemic I’m going to be a lot more willing to drive someplace just to walk or run on a trail.
Fasting is very much in the forefront of the kooky part of the health/wellness/fitness world that has me snake-fascinated. I’m convinced by the basic logic that our physiology functions best when we alternate between fed and fasted states, and functions poorly when we are always in a fed state.
As I write this, I’m approaching the end of a three-day fast. I did similar fasts in 2018 and 2019. This is actually my 2020 fast, slipped to early 2021 because I’d hesitated to do a fast during a pandemic. The pandemic isn’t over, but with 11 months of experience at dealing with it, I knew I could just arrange my schedule such that I had virtually no contact with other people for these three days.
Kinds of fasting
There are a lot of ways to do a fast, differing primarily in how long one fasts, and also in what one consumes during the fast.
At one end of the spectrum there’s just not eating for the period between supper and breakfast, which pretty easily stretches to 12 hours for anyone who can forego a bedtime or midnight snack. That period can be extended moderately—there are people who chose to fast for 13 to 16 hours per day—or it can be extended by somewhat more—some people choose to fast for a whole day. At the other end of the spectrum there’s prolonged fasting, where people fast for multiple days.
There are names for these various protocols. Some people practice what’s called 16:8 fasting, where they fast for 16 hours out of the day and consume all the food they eat within an 8 hour window (perhaps 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM, or noon to 8:00 PM). Another is called 5:2 fasting, where people fast on two days out of a week, eating as they like on the other five.
People seem to use the term “time-restricted eating” (or time-restricted feeding, if you’re talking about lab animals) to refer to fasting protocols where the fasting/eating windows are measured in hours. There is also the term “intermittent fasting” which some people just use as a generic term to refer to fasting protocols where the fasting window is not much more than a full day. (If you fast on alternate days you’ll typically end up with 36-hour fasts, assuming that you start your fast after supper on day 1, fast on day 2, and then break your fast with breakfast on day 3.)
Beyond the numerous periods of intermittent fasting, there’s the broad category of “prolonged fasting,” which can be anything from 48 hours out to 30 days or more, although fasting for longer than a week is rarely done for health reasons, except for people who are morbidly obese.
I’ve become convinced that some amount of fasting is not only healthy, it is important for health. Very briefly, there’s a finely balanced system inside of each cell that monitors available energy and available amino acids. If those things are present, the cell switches into a growth pathway, and starts making proteins and organelles (whatever the cell needs at the time). If the cell is short of either energy or amino acids, it switches over into what’s called autophagy, and instead of making proteins starts breaking them down.
For many people in the modern world it has become ordinary to eat frequently enough that one rarely goes even as long as 12 hours without eating. In that circumstance, cells rarely ever switch out of the growth pathway. Autophagy never happens, and old proteins never get broken down. This leads to all sorts of problems. Clearing out those damaged proteins (and damaged organelles) is important—they’re implicated in virtually all the diseases of aging from cancer to Alzheimer’s.
The cell seems to preferentially break down damaged, mis-folded proteins and damaged organelles. (See Selective degradation of mitochondria by mitophagy.) In any case, it’s going to replace them with whatever proteins and organelles you need most at the current moment. The process will end up improving both the quality and appropriateness of your cellular machinery.
I do a version of intermittent fasting all the time. Jackie and I eat breakfast fairly early in the morning, but then we just have one main meal of the day, usually around 2:00 PM. We got started on that because I found that eating close to bedtime was interfering with my sleep, and Jackie got frustrated that moving supper as early as I wanted meant that there was barely enough time between lunch and supper to clean up the kitchen and then prepare another meal. My proposal to just combine the two meals was met with some initial skepticism, but it has turned out to suit us very well.
In one sense, I’m doing a version of a 16:8 fast, because I fast from 3:00 PM or so until 7:00 AM the next morning. It’s not a strict fast though. I typically have cocktail hour at 4:00 PM, and I nearly always have cream in my coffee first thing when I get up in the morning. That shrinks the window in which I’m strictly fasting, but probably does it in a way that doesn’t much reduce the benefits of the fast. (For details see Fast This Way, by Dave Asprey the guy who invented Bulletproof coffee.)
Once a year though, I do a prolonged fast of at least three days. Although the research is preliminary, there’s some evidence that after three days the body goes beyond just autophagy, and starts clearing out senescent cells. That’s great, if it’s true; there’s very good evidence that clearing out senescent cells substantially improves healthspan and lifespan.
Except that I have a big cup of green tea in the morning (mainly to support my caffeine habit, also because green tea boosts autophagy and ketone production), I’m doing a water-only fast.
It hasn’t been hard. I was a little hungry the first day, felt great the second, and am now rather looking forward to breaking my fast in a few hours. But if there were some reason to extend my fast I could do it easily enough.
I made a point of getting in a hard lifting session on day two, just to let my body know that I was most definitely using those muscles, and that those proteins should be used to repair muscle and not be metabolized for energy.
Every time you have a hugely inappropriate and harmful stress response and don’t die, you train your limbic system that an overblown stress response is the right thing. Because the only thing your limbic system cares about is not dying.
Last year I used my consumerist impulses to motivate myself to get out for runs—I’d buy running gear, and then feel like I had to go for runs to justify the purchase. 🏃🏻♂️ This year I’m running anyway. But that doesn’t mean I can’t buy new running gear. This handsome top is perfect for runs when it’s just about freezing.
I’ve long struggled to program my training, a task that is difficult because I want to get better at everything. I want to be stronger and faster. I want to have more endurance for running and more endurance for walking (which turn out not to carry over perfectly from one to the other). I want to maintain and deepen my taiji practice and my parkour practice. I want to learn rock climbing and fencing.
This isn’t a new problem for me. As just one example, back in 2013 I was considering programming training not organized by the week but perhaps in 9-day training cycles.
There are at least two problems that I’m trying to address. One is just fitting in training for each capability I want to get better at. The other is how to not break down under that training load (which involves at least fitting in enough recovery time, but other stuff as well).
During the pandemic I’ve done okay, by focusing on exercise. Although I tweak things pretty often, very roughly I’ve organized each week to include:
3 strength training workouts
2 runs (a “long” run and a “fast” run)
1 HIIT workout
2 rest days
That looks pretty good until you do the math and see that it only works for 8-day weeks.
Besides that, note that this excludes my taiji practice (which amounted to more than 5 hours a week back in pre-pandemic days, because besides teaching I was engaging in my own practice). It also excludes my long, slow warmups (which I’ve started calling my “morning exercises,” since I do them pretty much every morning before proceeding with my “workout” for the day).
The way I’ve been making it sort-of work is by doubling up how I think about some of the workouts. A “fast” run with sprint intervals is a HIIT workout, and a HIIT workout with kettlebell swings is a strength-training session.
Still, there’s no hope to make something like this work if I want to add in parkour, rock climbing, and fencing. Likewise, I know from experience that I need a full day to recover from a very long (14-mile or longer) walk, so doing one of those requires devoting two days out of the week to just one training session.
So, I’m left in a quandary. How can I get better at all the things I already do and add in some additional activities as well? (Just before the pandemic I’d started taking an aikido class; I’m sure I’d enjoy finding a local group that plays Ultimate Frisbee….)
Happily for me, Adam Sinicki (aka The Bioneer) has written a book that addresses exactly this issue. The book is Functional Training and Beyond: Building the Ultimate Superfunctional Body and Mind. It starts out talking about “functional training,” and about the history of “getting in shape” i.e. “physical culture.” Then it runs though all the most common training modalities (bodybuilding, powerlifting, kettlebells, crossfit, etc.), before proceeding to talk specifically about how to take the best from each one, and then how to program it all into a workout plan.
His thinking on programming is pretty straightforward: You don’t just add everything together. Rather, you look through all the exercises you might do and pick the ones with the most cross-over benefit relevant to your goals, and then build an exercise program out of those (and you sequence them correctly to maximize your gains in terms of strength, mobility, flexibility, skills acquisition, speed, power, hypertrophy, etc.).
I’m going to spend some time (and some blog posts here) thinking over just how I want to do that.
This year was obviously strange in all sorts of ways, so I figure it’s not so strange that my movement practice got strange.
One thing that seems very strange to me is that I reverted to doing a lot of exercise, after having made a big deal the past few years of scorning exercise in favor of movement. I wrote a whole post on this recently (Exercise, movement, training), so I won’t repeat all that stuff here, except to say that the pandemic response provided me with a lot of opportunities to exercise, while restricting my opportunities to move and to train.
Around the beginning of the year I had a realization that what had held me back from achieving my fitness goals was not (as I had been supposing) a lack of intensity, but rather a lack of consistency. I responded by getting very serious of getting my workouts in, and was pretty pleased about having established a proper workout habit when just a few weeks later the pandemic led to our local fitness room being closed. I found this momentarily daunting.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it was around this time I saw this hilarious tweet:
The biggest problem with losing access to the fitness room was losing access to the pull-up bar. I looked around for alternatives, found that gymnastic rings were available and affordable, and I ordered a pair.
Easily the best purchase I made last year.
The addition of gymnastic rings made for a big change in my exercise regimen. I use them for three exercises: pull ups, inverted rows, and dips. I had worked pretty hard on pull ups before, but upon getting the rings I redoubled my efforts. As far as inverted rows and dips, I had played around with both, but now I got serious.
I round out my upper-body exercises with push ups.
For lower-body exercises I experimented with a variety of possibilities: squats of various types, kettlebell swings, burpees, lunges, etc.
One milestone was achieving my first pull-up. Another was the first time I did two pull-ups. Later I manged (a couple of times) to do three pull-ups!
I just wrote about how kettlebell swings taught me something about the value of doing lots of reps. Based on that, for my indoor workouts (where it’s not handy to set up my rings), I’ve started doing more exercises for high reps. Not enough data yet to know how that’s going to work, but it seems like a valuable experiment.
For a long time—at least many months, maybe more than a year—I’d had a sore foot that got worse when I ran. I repeatedly cut back or eliminated runs, had my foot get better, and then had it start hurting again as soon as I started running again. This past summer I finally took a full month off from running, which seems to have been what my foot needed.
I’ve very gradually resumed running. For some weeks I kept my runs down around just one a week and just 2–2.5 miles. Then up to a 3–3.5 miles. I did one 4 mile run, which didn’t seem to cause any problems, but then I did a run of nearly 5 miles, which did make my foot sore the next day. I took a break until the pain was completely gone and eased back to 3–3.5 miles, and all seems well.
I’ve just started doing two runs per week, a “long” run (slightly over 3 miles) and a “fast” run (where I hold the distance down under 3 miles, but include a few 10-second sprints around the mid-point of the run). That felt really good the last time I did it. (My running gait seems to improve when I run fast.)
I’ve talked at some length about my adventures in getting a kettlebell during a pandemic, and about my experience with kettlebell swings producing unexpected hypertrophy, so I won’t repeat that here. I’ll just say that cold weather—and especially ice on the patio—have kept me from doing much kettlebell swinging in the second half of December. But literally every day I look out on the patio to see if it is clear of ice, and get out and do some swinging when it seems safe.
I added a jump rope to my exercise equipment a while ago, and back in March and April did enough rope skipping to recover the ability to do it. (That is, I could jump rope for 30 or 40 seconds with zero or one misses.) The problem was that jumping rope hurt my sore foot just like running did. I prefer running, so when I had to set limits on those exercises to protect my feet, I ended up mostly running, as long as the weather was nice.
As the weather turned chilly in the fall, and especially when we started having days when there was an occasional short period adequate weather, but not the sort of reliable block of nice weather that makes me think I can fit in a good long run, I started thinking that an occasional bout of jumping rope might be a great way to squeeze in a quick, intense workout during even quite a brief period of nice weather on an otherwise nasty day.
To make full use of such periods, I paid up for a weighted jump rope. I have to say I’m pretty happy with it. It’s very much the opposite of my old jump rope, which was just a plastic-coated wire—very light and very fast—marketed to martial artists and cross-fit types. Pretty good for getting lighter on your feet, and adequate for a lower-body workout, but not much for the upper body. The weighted jump rope (even the lightest one, at just ¼ lb) definitely turns the jump rope exercise into an upper-body exercise as well.
I haven’t had the weighted jump rope long enough to form a definite opinion about it, but after just a couple of sessions, I’m pretty pleased, and if the weather cooperates, I’m hoping to get multiple HIIT jump rope workouts in over the course of the winter.
My main non-exercise movement is and always has been walking, but I’ve done very little this past year. This was half due to the pandemic, and half due to Jackie having a sore hip that makes it hard for her to walk fast or for long distances. (I’ve been taking Jackie to physical therapy, and she’s getting better. We’ve been doing walks in the woods south of the Arboretum, and that’s going very well.)
With fewer and shorter walks with Jackie, and with walking for transportation almost eliminated by the pandemic, my non-exercise walking has dwindled pretty severely.
Ditto for my non-exercise running.
I have very much had my eye on parkour as the thing I want to get back to this summer. Since I have made great progress on strength training specifically with an eye toward parkour, I’m very hopeful.
I’ve been doing just a bit of training, even without being able to get together with other traceurs.
The most active member of the campus parkour group turns out to have moved to Colorado. I’ve been in touch with him, and he seems to mean to spend at least some time here this summer, so hopefully I can put together some sort of training with him. In the meantime, I ordered one of his t-shirts, so I’ll have something to wear.
Like everything else, the taiji classes I used to teach at the Savoy Rec Center had to be abruptly canceled back in March.
During the spring I led a few group practice sessions via Zoom. They’re better than nothing, and at least keep the group connected.
Once the lock-down restrictions in Illinois eased up a bit in April, my group started meeting in the park, and we continued to meet through the summer. Once the weather turned, I resumed the on-line practice sessions.
Unlike a lot of my students, who don’t feel like they can do the taiji practice without someone to lead them, I can actually do a full practice session entirely on my own. And I occasionally do. But without the group being there, it’s hard to get motivated.
Still, I almost always include some qigong as part of my morning exercises, do the once-a-week group practice session, and occasionally do the full 48-movement form (if only to make sure I don’t forget how to do it).
Looking ahead, of course, is all about the end to the pandemic, something that I have high hopes for. If I can get vaccinated by June, let’s say, then by July maybe I can resume normal activity (while wearing a mask and maintaining social distance, of course, but actually interacting with people other than just Jackie).
Normal would include hiking in the woods, and maybe visiting some natural areas within a few hours drive. (We’ve pretty much completely avoided going anywhere so far that we couldn’t go, hike, and return without having to use a restroom.)
Normal would include practicing parkour with the campus group.
Normal would include resuming teaching taiji in the fall.
I had scheduled a visit to Urbana Boulders to do some wall climbing right when the lockdown started, so that fell by the wayside. I had actually started taking an aikido class when we had to stop because of the pandemic. Either one of those things might happen, once the pandemic ends.
I’m going to come at this in a kind of roundabout fashion. Bear with me. (Or don’t. I won’t mind.)
It starts like this: A week or so ago I put my hands on my hips and noticed a large muscle I’d never noticed before. I got out my copy of Strength Training Anatomy, and identified the muscle in question as my gluteus medius.
The glute med stabilizes the hip during gait (important for walking and running). It abducts the leg (important for dancers, I suppose, and anyone stepping sideways). It also inwardly rotates the leg (important for martial artists for kicking, and no doubt other things). That all makes sense. It’s an awfully big muscle to not be important for many things.
Still, I’d never given it much thought. I certainly hadn’t been designing my workout routines to build a bigger gluteus medius.
For a few minutes I was thinking, “Really? My glute med is where I’m seeing hypertrophy? Not my pecs. Not my biceps. Not my traps. Not my quads. Not my lats. Not my rectus abdominis. Not even my gluteus maximus. Nope. The gluteus medius.”
Once I got past that, I started to wonder what I had done that had caused my glute med to blow up in size, and the only thing that came to mind was kettlebell swings.
Now, at one level this makes perfect sense. In fact, the Tim Ferriss post that introduced me to kettlebells and the kettlebell swing made specific reference to exactly this effect:
In four weeks, he took his then-girlfriend, an ethnic Chinese with a surfboardlike profile, to being voted one of the top-10 sexiest girls out of 39,000 students at the University of Auckland. . . . Other female students constantly asked her how she’d lifted her glutes so high up her hamstrings.
Building this muscle, at the top of the pelvis, just above the gluteus maximus, would produce exactly that effect: making your glutes look higher, as much it made them look bigger.
So the fact that kettlebell swings hit the glute med shouldn’t have been unexpected. But I was nevertheless surprised that I got so much hypertrophy out of the effort I was putting in. I suppose it could be something special about the glute med (or about my glute med—my lifetime movement history somehow priming my muscle to be ready to explode with growth), but I doubt it. I think it was the kettlebell swings, and there was really only one thing different about my kettlebell swing workouts as opposed to my other workouts: reps.
Once I gave it some thought, I realized that I should not have been as surprised as I was. This result of high reps is pretty well known. For example, Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer has an excellent discussion of this in a post on bodyweight training that he wrote for people trying to put together a home exercise program during the pandemic.
My kettlebell swing workouts, drawing from Tim Ferriss’s suggested workout, were originally 3×25 swings, formerly with the 45 lb kettlebell in the fitness room, more recently with the 53 lb kettlebell I bought as soon as they became available again after the pandemic-related disappearance of all sorts of home workout equipment. I’ve started adding a 4th set to that workout, so a total of 100 swings, once or twice a week.
Despite having only a passing interest in making my muscles bigger (as opposed to making them stronger), I am intrigued by this effect. Maybe doing 100 reps is some sort of magic for producing hypertrophy.
I’ve reached the point where I can crank out a respectable number of push ups, but I’m not doing 75–100 reps. And for most of the other exercises I’m doing (in particular, dips and pull-ups), I’m working very close to my one-rep maximum—which is exactly the recommended protocol for building strength. For building size though, there are reasons to think that higher rep counts make good sense.
A lot of different factors go into making muscles bigger. You can make your muscle fibers bigger (myofibrillar hypertrophy). Maybe you can grow new muscles fibers (hyperplasia)—evidence is mixed. You can also add to other stuff in and around your muscle cells—glycogen stores, additional capillaries, supporting tissues, etc. (sarcoplasmic hypertrophy). These things will make your muscles bigger without necessarily making them any stronger (although they should increase your endurance).
My kettlebell swings, I suspect, mostly work through that last mechanism. (Although, to the extent that I do fatigue my glutes, I should get some amount of myofibrillar hypertrophy as well.)
Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is the increase of sarcoplasm in the muscle cells. Sarcoplasm is to a muscle cell what cytoplasm is to any other cell but contains glycosomes, myoglobin and oxygen binding protein in high amounts (as well as calcium). . . . Whatever is going on, the fact remains that lifting heavy makes you stronger and lifting a little lighter and for reps makes you bigger.
I continue to think that strength ought to be my main goal for lifting. Lifting for size seems to be about aesthetics, which is fine, but not important. But these past couple of years I keep coming back to thinking of my father, who is suffering from sarcopenia and becoming increasingly frail. And each time I do, I become all the more determined to add another few pounds of muscle as insurance against sarcopenia when I’m his age.
The success of my kettlebell workout in building the size of my glute med makes me think maybe I should go for 75–100 reps of a few other exercises. I’m within striking distance on push ups—I recently did 4×12 reps, so 3×25 isn’t that far off. I’m rather further away on inverted rows—I think the best I’ve done is 3×8 reps—but inverted rows are quite adjustable in terms of how hard they are. I’m sure there’s a ring height and foot position combination such that I could get close to 3×25 reps.
Maybe the result of those changes would be similar ballooning up of my pecs and lats. It seems, at least, to be worth a try.