Lift by Daniel Kunitz

My brother shared this comic with me a while back. I think it captures something—something about CrossFit, but also about how people react to anyone who’s “really into” anything.I’m not a crossfitter, but my expanding interests in fitness and movement have produced similarly horrified reactions to the prospect of having to engage with me on the topic—less frantic only because people are not literally trapped in an elevator with me.

I bring this up because the recent book Lift, by Daniel Kunitz, can be read as a love song to CrossFit (although he has done a pretty good job of discreetly tucking away most of the CrossFit stuff near the end of the book).

The book is more than just one thing, and even more than a love song to CrossFit it’s a fascinating cultural history of fitness.

Kunitz uses the term New Frontier Fitness to refer to the whole emerging cluster of practices centered around the idea of “functional” fitness: CrossFit, MovNat, Parkour, AcroYoga, obstacle course racing, and any number of gymnastic and calisthenic exercise practices. Kunitz doesn’t mention Katy Bowman’s work, but it obviously fits in as well.

Doryphoros MAN Napoli Inv6011-2A key thesis of the book is that the motivating genius of New Frontier Fitness is not without precedent: It springs directly from ancient Greek ideals of fitness, and he references both ancient Greek representations of a fit body (such as the Doryphoros sculpture) and statements by ancient Greeks not unlike Georges Hébert’s admonition “Be strong to be useful.”

This cluster of ideas—in particular that fitness was a moral and social obligation, but also that functional fitness produces a beautiful body as a side-effect (rather than as a goal)—largely disappeared after the Greeks, except in tiny subcultures such as the military. It has only reemerged in the past few years as the various things that Kunitz refers to as New Frontier Fitness.

In between—and the 2000-year history of this makes up of the center of Kunitz’s book—there were many things that were not this particular tradition of functional fitness, but instead were aimed at producing a particular type of body (body-building, aerobics, etc.)

It’s impossible for me to talk about Daniel Kunitz’s Lift without comparing it to another book—Christopher McDougall’s Natural Born Heroes. They are similar in at least two ways. First, they both compare modern fitness culture to that of the ancient Greeks. Second, they both appear to have been written just for me.

A third book that I read recently but haven’t written about is Spark, by John J. Ratey, which overlaps in the sense that all talk about intensity as a key aspect of exercise to produce functional fitness. (If all you’re interested in is appearance and body composition, you can get most of the way there with a diligent application of low-intensity exercise, but some amount of intensity is highly beneficial for functionality and brain health.)

All three books are worth reading.

Image credits: CrossFit Elevator comic by Ryan Kramer from ToonHole. Doryphoros photo by Ricardo André Frantz.

Writing and moving

I still struggle with the tension between time spent moving and time spent writing, even as I come to recognize that the tension may not even exist. So I love this post by Katy Bowman, on being A Writer Who Moves, A Mover Who Writes.

Culturally, we still hold the belief that the relationship between time and productivity is direct. As if writing consists solely of the output of words, your typing speed being the indicator of how long it would take to write a thousand-word word article (ten minutes) or a novel (one week). But of course, time spent coming up with ideas and themes, and organizing and reorganizing these threads in our minds, is also “writing.” The trouble is, we’ve come to see sitting at a desk as an integral part of the writing process. We imagine the mulling, the idea-forming, the organizing, the process—the creativity—can occur only when the butt–chair circuit is closed. I (and researchers) have found the opposite to be true: movement can be a conduit for creativity.

Today I will live this truth: I will move and I will write.

Movement in 2016

This year didn’t have a stunt like last year’s Kal-Haven Trail walk. Instead I tried to spend the year turning my realization that “getting plenty of exercise” is a poor substitute for “moving all day” into something that guided my behavior all the time.

I did not have perfect success. I still spend too many hours sitting at my computer during the day, and then spend too many hours sitting and watching videos in the evening. Neither did I fail. I included movement throughout the day most days of the year, especially through the spring, summer, and fall.

Although movement was my focus I certainly did not give up on exercise. In particular, I used exercise to make progress on developing certain capabilities that I lack.


I had four specific things I was going to work on for 2016: squatting, toe flexibility, hanging, and wall dips. I made good progress on all them except the toe flexibility.


My limitations in squatting turn out to be almost entirely mobility. (My personal test for this is the goblet squat. Using a modest weight—just enough to serve as a counterbalance so I can get down into a deep squat—I can do a dozen reps.)

The other ways (besides a counterbalance) to compensate for squat-limiting mobility issues are heel bolstering, hanging onto something in front of you, and taking a wide-legged sumo stance. I don’t practice the last, but use it when I want to look in my mailbox (which is down low) or into a low cabinet or the bottom of the refrigerator. I don’t much practice hanging onto something while squatting either. Most of my practice has focused on bolstering.

With a modest amount of heel-bolstering I can now get down into a deep squat, and linger there comfortably. Almost every day I do my calf and hamstring stretches and then do some squatting with progressively lower heel bolstering. I haven’t done as much hip flexor stretching as I probably need to. I’ll add that to my daily routine, both for the stretching itself, and also for the motor control practice—I’m kind of wobbly doing a hip flexor stretch, which probably causes all the related muscles to tighten up some.


My hanging is probably where I’ve made the most progress. I can now hang for long enough (90 seconds) that there’s time to do stuff while hanging—things like swinging back-and-forth or side-to-side, pulling my knees up toward my chest, or raising my legs up in front of me.

To just hanging I added negative pull ups. After an ill-advised increase in volume hurt my shoulder in July I eased up just a bit, but still made good progress, working up to 3×5 negative pull ups.

When that turned out not to have enabled even one pull up, I changed the exercise just a bit: Now I’m doing the negative pull ups even slower, trying at each point to see if I can (from that point) lift myself up, or at least stop my descent.

Soon. Soon I will be able to do a pull up.

Wall dip

I thought I was ready to do wall dips a year ago, because I could do wall supports—support myself with my hands on the top of a wall. I could even sort-of do one wall dip—lowering myself and then pushing back up.

I didn’t train that exercise enough in the summer, largely because I didn’t have a good wall to practice on. When I came back to it in the fall, I found that going from one wall dip to two wall dips was quite challenging.

Something that is well-known in the bodyweight exercise community—that I know, but always seem to have trouble applying to myself—is that when an exercise is too hard you should back off to an easier progression.

So, just now that it’s winter, I have finally backed off a bit to an easier dip progression: bench dips (where you have your hands on a bench behind you, with your legs stretched out in front of you, and you lower and raise yourself with your arms while some weight rests on your heels).

I’ve already worked up from 1×8 bench dips to 1×12. Pretty soon I’ll be doing 3×12. Then it’ll probably be time to return to wall dips. I’ll also keep up with my wall supports, when I happen upon a good wall.

Toe stretches

The area where I’ve made the least progress is toe dorsiflexion. That’s been kind of frustrating.

This may be one area where what I need is not just more stretching (which hasn’t seemed to do any good at all) but some sort of deeper tissue work to break up adhesions, recover space in the joint capsule, etc.

It just now, while writing this, occurred to me that I probably I need to expand my focus to include my whole foot and not just the toes. So that can be my winter practice: the same, plus extra foot mobility.


I’m adding a fifth area of focus for 2017: Pushups.

They had not been a priority before, because pushing strength in that plane is not particularly important for parkour. And yet, it’s such a basic exercise, it seems silly not to give it a little attention—particularly because I was actually really weak in that area: I could barely do one pushup.

I just decided to add pushups a few weeks ago, about the same time I figured out I should back off from wall dips to bench dips. So when I found I could barely do a pushup, I quickly realized that I should back off to something easier for that move as well. So I’ve just started doing bench pushups (hands on a bench, rather than on the floor). I can do 1×8 of those as well.

Because trying to do a pushup is so easy, I probably won’t wait until I can do 3×12 bench pushups before switching back to regular pushups; I’ll just include an occasional few (as many as I can do) in the mix. Once I can do 5 or 6, I’ll switch back to actual pushups.

Non-Exercise Movement


Without a stunt walk to work up to, Jackie and I did not walk as much this year as last, but we did plenty of long walks and at least one very long walk. Some of our walking is exercise, but most of it is either just a way to get places, or else companionable social time together—often both.


I also did a good bit of running, especially before August. As I’ve been doing more and more these past two or three years, I skipped most of the short and medium runs, letting walks stand in for those, and just did the long runs. That worked surprisingly well, and in July I did a 7.25 mile run, my longest run in years. This is probably a slider as to whether it counts as “exercise” or not, but I do it as much because I enjoy it as I do it for fitness, so I think it legitimately goes here.


Early in the summer I did some training with the campus parkour group, which was great fun. I found it a bit stressful: I’m not strong enough to do some of the basic moves, and I’m too timid to commit to some of the ones I could do if I’d just go for it. I quit going in July when I hurt my shoulder, and then never got started again. I will go back. Maybe being stronger will help some with the timidity as well.


I’ve continued to teach taiji, and to do taiji for myself when I’m not teaching it. The qigong practice that we start each session with provides a pretty good mobility routine (although lacking in the things I mention above: hip flexion, ankle dorsiflexion, and toe dorsiflexion). It builds strength (especially leg strength), balance, and precision (matching movement to intention). It includes a meditation practice—in each class we sit for a few minutes and stand for a few minutes, as well as trying to approach the form itself as moving meditation. It fills so many rolls it goes way beyond exercise (although it’s that too).

Push hands

One new thing I added—perhaps the most fun of all—is push hands. Closely related to taiji and qigong, it’s kind of a transitional step between taiji as a moving meditation and taiji as a martial art. It deserves a post of its own, so I won’t try to describe it here, and instead just thank the new friends I’ve been able to push with and say how much I’m looking forward to practicing again now that the holidays are over.

Volunteer stewardship work days

This doesn’t really describe a category of movement at all, which is I guess the way in which this is totally not an exercise.

Jackie’s master naturalist program includes a substantial volunteer commitment. It can be met a lot of different ways, but one is working in the various parks, doing things like clearing invasive plants, planting native species, and so on.

I’ve just done a few of these, but spent a couple of hours each time moving. Some of the movement—in particular, gathering prairie seeds—must have been identical to what our ancestors would have done in gathering seeds. Others were perhaps slightly different—we had saws and pruning clippers that our earliest ancestors would not have had—but once something has been cut, the lifting and dragging is right back to being the exact same movements that humans have been doing for hundreds of thousands of years.

I’m always torn this time of year, between looking forward to spring and being able to move outdoors again, versus motivating myself to get outdoors anyway (also: finding ways to move more indoors). I’m trying to discipline myself not to just defer my plans to the spring even implicitly such as by saying “I’m looking forward to spring and being able to move outdoors again.”

I’m pleased with 2016, a year of great progress in my movement practice, and I have every reason to hope that 2017 will be even better.


Original opulence via simple living

Just from her title I was pretty sure that Christa Whiteman’s post Living simply: reclaiming sanity + authenticity would be right in my sweet spot, and I was not surprised to find more than a little overlap with what I’ve been saying for years at Wise Bread. I’ve talked about living a life of “luxury and splendor,” but recovering our “original opulence” sounds good too.

Christa suggests three starting places: food, movement, and stuff—adding that the proper course to take is a spiral, coming around to the same points over and over. She is right—where you start means little—and yet, her course is so completely different from my own I thought it might be worth pondering those differences to see if they told me something useful about what I’ve been doing, and about how I’ve been writing about it.

As anyone who has read my work at Wise Bread knows, I’m all about the power of frugality as a tool for living a life of full of exactly what you most want: Basically, I started with the “stuff” piece. I probably have a hundred articles on various aspects of figuring out the difference between needs and wants, covering your actual needs, identifying and focusing on those few wants that matter most deeply to you, and dealing with others who care how you satisfy your wants.

I wrote quite a bit about food, too—about how to eat at the intersection of cheap and healthy. I’ve just now reread a few of those posts and I’m pretty pleased with them, even if I’d write them differently now.

Christa’s third piece is about movement, and that is where my writing at Wise Bread falls short. In fact, I’ve really got exactly one post that’s right on topic. The editors gave it the unfortunate title of Get a Great Workout for Free With 11 Simple Moves, but it’s straight-up natural movement advocacy. Before that, I had some good stuff on how walking and bicycling for transportation were frugal and healthy, but it had a pretty limited perspective.

I think I need to write some more pieces on both food and movement for Wise Bread. I can certainly write a new Wise Bread post on how to eat paleo on the cheap. (Not that I eat a paleo diet, but there’s a lot of overlap between what’s expensive in my diet and what’s expensive in the paleo diet.) Maybe I can also write some more movement pieces. What should be the focus, I wonder. The frugality of natural movement for exercise? The frugality of staying healthy? Or the luxury and splendor of being a fully capable human? I guess I’ve done that first one. Hmm.

Anybody who talks about natural movement needs a picture of themselves squatting on a fallen tree in the forest.
Anybody who talks about natural movement needs a picture of themselves squatting on a fallen tree in the forest.

Walking on the beach

Lake Michigan isn’t great for swimming—the water is still pretty cold even in August, it’s kind of polluted, it lacks the extra buoyancy that comes from the salt in ocean water, and there’s no coral. But if what you want is a beach, Lake Michigan has a great one.

Eight years ago my brother convinced me to come to St. Croix for a family reunion sort of thing. We stayed at Cottages by the Sea. The meticulously kept grounds invited barefoot walking, and I was surprised to discover that a week walking barefoot in the grass and the sand cured my plantar fasciitis. (I’d been keeping it under control with Birkenstocks, supportive shoes, rationing the amount of standing I did on hard floors, and strictly limiting the amount of barefoot walking I did. Discovering that barefoot walking on natural surfaces helped rather than hurt was a key early step in my move toward natural movement.)

lake-michigan-beach-2_29188771842_oThe Lake Michigan beach has some rocks right down in the surf, but they’re not an obstacle to comfortable walking, because they’re resting on sand and push right down when you step on them (unlike the rocky beach in St. Croix, which seems to be exposed bedrock with a little sand on top). And anyway, just a few feet up the beach from the surf, it’s just sand.

looking up a duneRather a lot of sand, actually. Whole dunes of it. It’s beautiful along the lake.

Champaign-Urbana is a great place to live, but it is lacking in beach, so I was glad to get a chance to visit the beach while visiting my dad last week. We drove to South Haven, visited a small nature preserve, and then went to the Van Buren State Park just south of the preserve. I did some beach walking both places.

I loved walking in the sand—soft, comfortable, hot (up where the sand is dry), cool (down by the water), and mildly abrasive. My feet enjoyed it even though my plantar fasciitis is long gone, cured by the taiji practice (standing meditation turns out to be a great way to learn how to stand), and by plenty of barefoot walking on natural surfaces.

feet-in-the-sand_29219114001_oIt only occurred to me recently that my feet being shoe-shaped (rather than foot-shaped) was a bad thing. I’d some years ago started down the path of “barefoot” running (that is, running in minimalist running shoes), but I’d been focusing on improve my running gait, rather than the shape of my foot.

Once I started walking actually barefoot, I quickly developed an odd callus on the pad of my left index toe. And, looking at my feet, you can see why. Just the bit of barefoot walking I’ve done over the past couple of years has almost normalized my right big toe, which now comes out almost straight from my foot. My left big toe is still canted over at an angle so that it presses up against my left index toe. No wonder I use the toe oddly in a way that produces the odd callus.

Well, something to continue working on.

Ankle dorsiflexion turns out to be useful

For going on two years now, I’ve been working on recovering the ability to squat. I’m not talking about the exercise called the squat, although I do that too. I’m talking about the ordinary human resting posture of lowering your butt down near your heels and relaxing there.

The reason I’ve been working on it for two years is that I haven’t been flexible enough to get into a proper squat. My flexibility has been improving pretty slowly, but it has been improving—I can now get down into a pretty good squat if I have a bit of heel support.

The change that’s been driving the improvement, but (as needing heel support shows) the area where I still need to improve, is ankle dorsiflexion. (Dorsiflexion is pulling your toes up toward your knees. It’s the opposite of plantarflexion, which is pointing your toes away from your knees.) To improve my ankle dorsiflexion I’ve been doing a variety of calf stretches with both straight and bent knees.

I don’t really have a before picture, but my ankle flexion used to be just about zero. That is, my ankle would bend 90° (as in standing up straight) no problem, but bending it up further simply didn’t happen. I used to think that was normal, and didn’t really try to stretch my calf to go beyond that range.

Now that I’ve been doing my stretches for a while, I can manage a bit of dorsiflexion:

Ankle dorsiflexion while walking uphill
Ankle dorsiflexion while walking uphill

The thing that prompted me to write this post, though, is not that I’m a few degrees closer to being able to squat, but that this added range of motion turns out to be useful for other stuff. In particular, as demonstrated in this picture, walking uphill.

There’s not a lot of call for walking uphill in east-central Illinois, but you can find places where it’s possible to go up a hill. Jackie and I visited one a couple of weeks ago, and I found myself putting my new range of motion to good use.

See, if you can dorsiflex your ankle, then the heel of your back foot can stay on the ground as you stride uphill. This lets you use your glutes to drive yourself forward and upward.

If you can’t dorsiflex your ankle, then your back heel comes off the ground as soon as your front foot goes forward. Now you’re stuck pushing yourself up with your relatively wimpy quads and calf muscles.

I’m not surprised, I just hadn’t though of it. This natural movement stuff turns out to have all kinds of side benefits.

First very long walk in a very long while

Last summer we were doing lots of very long walks, getting ready for our day hike of the Kal-Haven Trail. This year, without that motivating event, we haven’t done nearly as many.

We’ve done plenty of walking, of course. We’ve even taken some long walks. But since our big hike last summer, we’d only done one very long walk, back in October last year. (A very long walk is one longer than 14 miles. That post includes the explanation of how I picked that distance.)

With this lack of very long walks in mind, a couple of days ago I suggested to Jackie that we should go for a 15-mile hike, and we agreed that Saturday looked like a good day for it.

Jackie has signed up to be a Master Naturalist, and because it’s an endeavor of the Urbana Park District (among other groups), she wanted to visit some Urbana parks. So, we made a point of hitting a few as we walked, including Carle Park, Crystal Lake Park, Busey Woods, and Meadowbrook Park. We’d thought to hit the newish Weaver Park, but to do so we’d have had to go a long way along one of two rather uninspiring, somewhat busy streets. We decided to save it for a day when we were out in the car.

We did some casual route planning, but basically we figured we’d just walk to (and around) parks until we hit our 15 mile goal, and then catch a bus to home. And that would have worked great, except that we really wanted to visit Meadowbrook Park, where we had volunteered in a stewardship work day last week. And that would have been fine, except that the Sunday bus service to Meadowbrook is pretty limited.

Once we’d seen the parts of Meadowbrook that we particularly wanted to see, we’d hit our 15 mile goal (or nearly), and I sat down to check the bus timings. Asked for the best way home by bus, Google Maps suggested that we just walk home—about 3 miles, along Race Street and Curtis Road. I suggested to Google Maps that we might want to walk to First and Gerty, where we could catch the Yellow bus home, but that would be almost as far as just walking home—and end up taking longer, because we’d still have the bus ride ahead of us.

In the end, we just walked home. It was okay, even though there aren’t any sidewalks along Race or Curtis. A good bit of the way we had wide swaths of recently mowed grass along the side of the road, which gave us a nice place to walk well away from the traffic. Other places we had to walk right on the edge of the road, but the drivers were all good about steering clear of us (and we had a ditch we could have bailed out into if necessary).

Some of the stretches were pretty weedy, which made for some harder walking, and some places the weeds hid uneven bits in the ground. Those might have been a problem last year, when nearly every long walk we took was further than we’d ever walked before, meaning that our feet and ankles tended to be tired and sore for the last few miles, which is no good for walking over uneven ground.

This year, it turned out to be no big deal. Despite this being our first very long walk since October, our feet and ankles were totally up to it. We were glad to get out boots off and sit down at the end of it, but we could have walked several more miles if that had been necessary.

The total walk came in at 17.78 miles, rather longer than I’d intended, but comfortably over the threshold for a very long walk. And we got to see some very nice parks.

I neglected to get any pictures along the walk, with one exception: I took a picture of the house where Chuck used to live in Urbana so I could send it to him. And, since that’s the only picture I took on this walk, it’s all I’ve got to illustrate this post.

Here you go:


Who has time for all that?

I gave up multitasking a long time ago. I realized that I’m not good at it, and started paying attention so that I could notice when I was doing it and stop.

As an aside, I should mention that there’s now quite a bit of research to show that nobody is good at multitasking, and that the people who think they’re good at it are even worse than the people who know they’re not.

Even though I’m more efficient doing one thing with complete focus and then going on to the next thing, that practice alone doesn’t solve the underlying problem that tempts people into multitasking: How else can I get everything done?

Half of the answer to that is the drearily obvious, “You can’t. What you can do is get a whole lot done, if you quit frittering away your time on trivial, pointless stuff, and apply your time doing the most important stuff.”

I know some people who are pretty good at that, and they are routinely way more productive than me or most other people.

But there’s more to it than that. Katy Bowman has been talking about one useful practice, suggesting that you “stack your life” by accomplishing multiple goals at once—something that sounds suspiciously like multitasking, but really isn’t.

I’ve actually been thinking about this quite a bit, wanting to articulate the difference for my own sake if no one else’s. My take on it, is that it has to do with what the limiting resource is for each activity.

There are a lot of limiting resources. Your hands are one—they can really only do one thing at a time (although my mom used to read, fan herself, and drink lemonade all at the same time, and felt like she was being very efficient). Location is another—something that can only be done in the kitchen can’t be stacked with an activity that can only be done in the garage or the gym or the grocery store. Other people are another—something that requires the presence of another person can’t be done without him or her. (Though it’s not that simple, as sometimes you can stack up the other people and get multiple things done with multiple people.)

In multitasking, the limiting resource is your attention, and what’s unique about attention is that many activities can be done with partial attention. That experience tempts us into thinking that attention is more divisible than it really is.

Washing dishes only takes partial attention, meaning that you can listen to the radio or a podcast and get full benefit out of both activities.

Driving is a more complex example. We know that driving sometimes requires your full attention. This is why talking on the phone is unsafe to do while driving—talking on the phone requires enough of your attention that doing so reduces your competence at driving as much as getting drunk does. (Talking to someone in the car with you is much less unsafe, because that person can see when the road conditions are such that you need your full attention and shut up. Just listening to something—the radio or a podcast—does not seem to cause the same problem, probably for reasons having to do with deep structures in the brain that prioritize social interactions.)

Even though there are plenty of activities that can be done with partial attention, most important activities require full attention to be done well.

Writing a blog post can be done with partial attention, but when I try to do it while simultaneously listening to a podcast, checking my twitter and facebook feeds, chatting with a friend on-line and another in-person, and answering the occasional email message, I don’t do it as well.

As I’ve worked to apply this lesson—noticing when I’m multitasking and then refocusing on the main thing I’m doing—I’ve learned something else: Many activities that don’t require full attention turn out better when I give it to them anyway.

Beyond that, I feel better when I give my full attention to whatever I’m doing.

It was the meditation practice that I adopted as part of my taiji practice that taught me this. First, it taught me the skill of paying attention, then it taught me that paying attention to what I was doing right now paid dividends, even when all I was doing was sitting or standing.

I’ve noticed it particularly with exercise. I used to distract myself from exercise with music or podcasts or games like Zombies, Run!, because I found exercise to be unpleasant drudgery that I only engaged in to the extent necessary to build and maintain a basic level of fitness. I don’t do that any more. It’s much better when I fully embody my exercise: I enjoy it more, I’m less prone to injury, and the exercise is more effective.

The more I do this—give my full attention to whatever it is I’m doing, whether it seems worthy of full attention or not—the more I find it worthwhile.

Downside: I’m falling behind on my podcast listening, because there are so few things were I feel like partial attention is all they deserve. Maybe I’ll find more, but at the moment I’m just about down to riding on the bus.

So, yes: Stack your life. If you can do one thing with your brain, one thing with your hands, and one thing with your feet all at the same time, go for it. But think twice before dividing your attention. If something is worth doing, it may well be worth your full attention, no matter how hard that makes it to get everything done.

Prairie Spiderweb