Grip strength

Gymnastic rings hanging from branch of sycamore tree, with a yoga mat in the foreground.

One side benefit to all the ring training I’ve been doing has been increased grip strength.

It hadn’t occurred to me in advance that this would happen, but it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Most people have poor grip strength (unless they either do manual labor, or else hang by their hands for some reason). Because most people start from a very low base, increased grip strength is easy to achieve.

Hanging exercises are a great idea for everyone. I encourage my taiji students to consider doing some sort of hanging exercise. They’re mostly seniors, so I admonish them not to actually hang by their hands without carefully working up to it, but just grasping something over your head, and then bending your knees to put a little weight on your hands will do a world of good for your shoulders. It will also start building grip strength. (In class I always joke that developing the ability to hang by your hands can save your life, if you unexpectedly find yourself in an action movie.)

I recently discovered that my grip strength had gone up in a way that was a little problematic: I was giving a dish rag a good squeeze, and found that it made my hand a little creaky: My grip strength was higher than it had been—enough higher to be out of balance with the strength of the joints and tendons in my hands.

There are two issues there. One is that grip strength for hanging from (or supporting yourself on) gymnastic rings covers a very narrow range of motion for the hands—the rings are just one diameter all the way around, and they don’t get smaller if you squeeze them, so you’re training your hands to be very strong in that one single position. The other is that muscles get stronger much faster than tendons do, so in a few weeks you can make your muscles strong enough that they can strain your tendons, while it takes months to make your tendons strong enough to stand up to the maximum force those muscles can exert.

After my experience with the dish rag, I got out my Power Putty. (It’s a brand of stuff like Silly Putty, but sold in a range of different stiffnesses. It’s marketed in the less-stiff versions to people who need physical therapy for some grip issue, and then in the more-stiff versions for people who want to build strongman-like grip strength.) I was a little surprised to find that the stuff I have—medium-firm—feels scarcely firm at all any more.

That’s okay. I’ve learned enough in the 20 years since I bought that stuff that I certainly don’t feel the need to get Power Putty in different stiffnesses.

The way to build further grip strength is to grip real-world things of a variety of sizes and textures. Squeezing dish rags is a great way to start. Hanging from tree branches (instead of just gymnastic rings) would be good too. Brachiating across monkey bars of various sizes will also be good. I’ve seen tricks for working on grip, such as putting a towel over a pull-up bar (or through a gymnastic ring) so that one hand is gripping the towel instead of the bar or ring.

Grip strength is strongly correlated with greater life expectancy (and superior health status in numerous other ways). This has to be one of the clearest cases ever where “training to the test” is useless—increasing your grip strength will not make you live longer—but living your life in a way that builds your grip strength is probably a great way to be stronger, healthier, more capable, and more comfortable as you age.

I think I’ll actually be using my Power Putty. It’s not really stiff enough to build my grip strength, but it’ll probably be just right to work on the tendons and joints in my hands. They mostly need time to get stronger to match the strength of my gripping muscles, but working them through a full range of motion will also help, and medium-stiff Power Putty will be great for that.

New kettlebell! 🏋🏻‍♂️

I finally got my new kettlebell!

Kettlebells have been completely unavailable since March, when all of a sudden nobody could just share the kettlebells at their fitness center, so everybody who used them went out to buy their own. I’d been looking around on-line every few days all through April, May, and June, checking at WalMart, and Dick’s Sporting Goods, and Amazon, and Onnit, all of which were perpetually sold out. But back on July 1st, I found a place via Amazon that had the size of kettlebell I wanted (53 lbs = 24 KG = 1.5 pood). It was expensive, but after waiting for months I was ready to pay up.

And yet, that was not the end of my story of woe. The package went to FedEx which said it would be delivered the next day. It made it as far as Ellenwood, GA, at which point they said it would be delivered in two days. But it never departed Ellenwood. On the day it was supposed to be delivered they claimed it would be delivered by the end of the day until it was the end of the day, at which point its expected delivery date changed to “Pending.” After two more weeks I contacted the vendor who said, “Oops, looks like FedEx lost it. We’ll send another.” And then exactly the same thing happened: It made it as far as Ellenwood, GA changed from “next day” to “two days” to “pending” and then stayed there.

But this time it didn’t vanish forever. FedEx eventually found it, and yesterday the FedEx guy muscled my 53 lb package up to my doorstep!

I’d been working out with kettlebells for maybe 4 years before the pandemic started, using the one kettlebell in the fitness room (the only one I had access to), which was 45 lb (= 20 kg = 1.25 pood). Over the first few weeks I’d worked up to doing 3×25 swings, which is probably enough to be a good workout for the posterior chain. Then I’d experimented with doing it as a HIIT workout and tried various alternative workout plans. For a while I was doing 30 seconds of work followed by 30 seconds of rest for (eventually) 10 rounds. Then I switched back to doing them in sets of 25 and had just worked my way up to 5×25 when we had to go into quarantine, and I lost access to the kettlebell.

After 4 months of not doing them, I was inclined to be quite careful about swinging this one, especially since this kettlebell is 8 lbs heavier. Yesterday by the time it’d arrived, I’d already had a beer, and I decided not to even try to swing my new kettlebell while even slightly under the influence.

Today though I got it out and did 6×10 swings, which was a pretty good workout.

I’m sure I’ll be able to work up to sets of 25 swings pretty quickly once again. Or maybe I’ll stick with 30-second intervals and go back to doing them as HIIT workouts.

Whatever I do, I’m delighted to have my new, heavier kettlebell!

A much better run 🏃🏻‍♂️🏋🏻‍♂️

Looking at my “readiness” score for today I’m perhaps slightly less ready than I was five days ago, when I let my Oura ring mislead me into postponing a rest day in favor of some hill sprints.

In fact, I felt enormously better today, and my performance shows that. Today’s run was a bare one minute longer than my run at the beginning of the week, but I ran a full mile further:

I’m not sure there’s anything to learn from this. Maybe “don’t skip rest days” would be a good start. I’m sure “listen to your body” is always good advice. Whatever lame platitude you want to go with is fine with me. As for me, I’m just glad I got in a good run.

In other news, the replacement kettlebell for the one I ordered on July 1st, but which vanished into some black hole at FedEx’s Ellenwood, GA location, only to vanish itself in exactly the same way, seems to have been discovered, and is now supposed to be delivered next week! We shall see.

Ready, but not ready for anything 🏃🏻‍♂️

View from a run

My Oura ring produces a “readiness” score each day, and I’ve found it to be a pretty good indication as to whether or not I’m up for a long run or a hard workout. The times I’ve ignored it when it said I needed to take it easy, I’ve often found it was right and I was wrong. Today was a rare instance of the reverse.

According to my plan, today should have been a rest day. But I wanted to go for a run.

The ring gave me a readiness score of 88 (out of a possible 100), which is rather above my average (my average this month has been 80), and I took that as a license to go for the run I wanted, instead of taking the rest day my plan suggested.

Turns out—this time—my plan was right and my ring was wrong. I went for my run, but I felt tired and sluggish throughout.

It wasn’t a catastrophe. I didn’t hurt myself. I just don’t think I did myself much good. I ran to Colbert Park, did three hill sprints (in actuality, feeble jogs), and then ran home again. But I didn’t have any oomph behind the sprints, so I don’t expect they’ll have done their job in terms of boosting leg strength or aerobic capacity.

The Oura ring’s readiness score has been a very reliable indicator for me—which is why it helped me fool myself this time. So this is a good reminder to me to interrogate all of the factors that go into making a workout decision—my plan, my intuition, my ring, etc.

So one thing I’m doing is looking back at the factors that feed into the score, looking to see if there’s one that looked better than it really was.

Nothing really jumps out at me. Given the same information, I’d also figure that I was ready for a hard workout. (In fact, I had that information, plus my own sense that I felt ready for a hard workout. That’s exactly how I overrode my plan and went out for a tired, tiresome run.)

Oh, well. Insert your own pithy “live and learn” aphorism here.

Dips!

I’ve been working on dips for a while, but not with great consistency until just the past three or four months.

For a long time I was doing bench dips (where you put your hands behind you on a bench, stretch your legs out in front of you with your heels on the floor, and then push with your hands to raise your hips up to the level of the bench), to try to get my triceps strong enough to do real dips. In the fitness room there are some bars that can be put on the squat rack so you can do bar dips. I wasn’t really strong enough to do a good bar dip, but I’d sometimes do partials or negatives.

For parkour, you want to do wall dips, but I don’t know of any good chest-high walls in Savoy, so I haven’t practiced those in a long time.

Since I got my gymnastic rings around the end of March, I’ve been working pretty steadily on ring dips. (Which are much harder, because while pushing yourself up you also have to be able to stabilize your body.)

I’ve been following pretty much the usual progression—working on just a ring support (where you hold yourself in the top position for a dip), on negative dips (where you just lower yourself), and on partial dips (where you lower yourself only part of the way down, and then back up).

I’ve been gradually increasing the range of my partials, and a few days ago I thought I was doing a full, proper dip. I wasn’t really sure though—there aren’t any mirrors out under the sycamore tree where I hang my rings. So today I got Jackie to come and video me, so I could watch what I was doing:

I think those first two—especially the second—are legit dips. (The third, of course, is just a negative.)

Barefoot running, actually barefoot

I’d heard this, but I’m not sure I really believed it.

I’ve been running in “barefoot” shoes for a good 5 years now. The improvement in my gait was dramatic and immediate. But serious barefoot advocates are very firm about the point that it’s only when you run with actual bare feet that you acquire the huge upside that comes with barefoot running.

Reduced injury rates (due to the improved gait) are one of those upsides. Increased running efficiency (due to the improved gait, but also due to not having to carry the weight of a shoe on each foot) is another upside.

But there are alleged to be further sources of improved efficiency that come from barefoot running. When you’re actually barefoot, you’re going to hit the ground much more gently (because without cushioning it would hurt to hit the ground hard). Your foot is going to hit the ground with zero forward velocity (because if your bare foot slides along the concrete, the friction will cause blisters almost immediately).

In both cases—not slamming your foot into the ground, and not grinding your foot into the ground—the upshot is improved efficiency.

But it’s one thing to hear that “improved efficiency” is a thing, and another to actually see it. Check out this comparison of a run from one month ago, versus a run today.

Here’s the first three-quarters of mile of a run from one month ago, wearing minimalist shoes:

I left off the first few tens of seconds because it took until then for my heart rate monitor to stabilize on my actual heart rate. Then I went on for about three-quarters of a mile (out of a longer run) to match the distance that I ran today.

The things to note are that I ran at a 14:20 min/mil pace (very slow), that my heart rate averaged 117 bpm, and that the majority of my run was spent in zone 3.

Now check out my graph from today’s run, run with actual bare feet:

I’ve matched the distances (the former is the first part of a much longer run, the latter my entire barefoot run today). Today’s run was at a considerably faster pace (37 seconds per mile faster), while at the same time keeping my heart rate considerably lower (averaging 109 bpm, entirely in zone 2).

I have to say, this is very promising for future endeavors. I need to boost my confidence a bit, so I feel comfortable going for longer runs barefoot. I also need to get a bit more familiar with pacing—my MAF heart rate is probably more like 124. I need to figure out what it feels like when I run that pace barefoot. Because: who knows how fast I can run at that heart rate barefoot?

(The shortcode below won’t work until I get an updated version of the plugin for displaying GPX maps.)