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.
Only very old playgrounds still have monkey bars, jungle gyms, or pull-up bars. This modern playground at least has a horizontal bar at the top of the slides which is suitable for doing inverted rows. I took the opportunity of running past to do a quick set. 🏃🏻♂️
A few years ago I made a shift in my thinking about fitness—a shift from trying to get enough exercise to trying to fill my days with movement. I haven’t changed my mind about that being the right way to go, but this year, especially since the pandemic started, has seen me step back into exercise mode.
I have to say that it has turned out pretty well for me this year.
One thing about exercise is that it gives you a bunch of metrics you can track, and on the metrics I’ve done pretty well. At the beginning of the year I could do 3 pushups and now I can do 4 sets of 12. At the beginning of the year I could do zero pull ups, and now I can do a set of 3 followed by 2 sets of 2.
Having the metrics is great for someone like me who’s a big ol’ nerd about tracking that sort of data, but it’s not just a matter of numbers. Those bigger numbers correspond to real-world capabilities. I’m definitely stronger than I was at the beginning of the year, in all kinds of ways. I’m also leaner. (I have more muscle, plus I let myself lose about 5 pounds in a so-far vain effort to be able to see the abs I’ve built.)
A lot of my fitness goals are related to attaining and maintaining specific capabilities. I want to be able to:
Pick something heavy up off the ground
Take something heavy off a high shelf and lower it safely
Clamber on top of a wall
Jump down from a wall
Jump over a ditch
Run away from danger (or toward someone in need of help)
That’s not a comprehensive list; merely a brief sketch of the sort of things I want to be able to do.
Even a quick glance makes it clear that many of them are skill-based activities. I’ve worked on some of them before (click through the parkour tag to see six or seven years worth of reports about my efforts in those directions), but I felt that my efforts were limited by a lack of strength. That probably wasn’t even really true—parkour is scalable—but to the extent that it was true, it’s much less true now.
The way to get better at a skill-based activity is to practice it. And most of that practice should not be practicing whole activities, but rather individual pieces of them.
There’s a word that means practicing all the individual bits that go together to make a larger move: training—something that’s been really hard to do during the pandemic.
The real reason I’ve switched to exercise is that during the pandemic, although I’ve been able to move, my opportunities to train have been limited.
I’m hoping to spend the summer training. I’m thinking parkour, but if I can’t get it together to do that, maybe I’ll go with rock climbing. (Indoor climbing would be a great winter activity, if the vaccines roll out fast enough that I feel like it’s already safe to engage in indoor activity before summer weather. But there’s no rule against indoor climbing during the summer either.)
It’s possible to do parkour training during the winter, as long as it isn’t too icy. I tend not to get out in the cold or wet to do so, but I’m working on overcoming that—with some success: I’ve been doing pretty well at getting out for runs, even during chilly/damp fall weather. But I’m at the point where I could really use some instruction in parkour, and that’s out-of-bounds during the pandemic.
In the meantime, I’ll go on doing my exercise, figuring it’s the best way to get myself ready for training, once circumstances align.
Jackie attended the annual Illinois Master Naturalist’s conference last week, and came away with any number of interesting tidbits, but one in particular stuck with me: Forest bathing is like ergonomics.
Both Jackie and I have had our understanding of ergonomics informed by Katy Bowman, who points out:
Modern ergonomics is not the scientific pursuit of what is best for the human body, but the scientific pursuit of how the human body can be positioned (in one position, for eight or more hours at a time) for the purpose of returning to work the next day, and then the next and the next and the next.
What Jackie learned at her conference was that the Japanese concept of forest bathing (shinrin-yoku) has roots in the same idea. When Japanese salarymen started dying from overwork, a lack of exposure to nature was put forward as a partial explanation.
If the problem is a lack of exposure to nature, then immersing yourself in nature is an obvious solution. But, of course, actually immersing yourself in nature would take too much time out of the workday. Hence the research into forest bathing is all about finding the minimum effective dose. There is little or no research into figuring out the optimum time for humans to spend in nature.
Keep that in mind when you read yet another article about how just looking at a forest scene for 20 minutes reduces salivary cortisol 13.4%, or walking in the woods for just 40 minutes improves mood and boosts feelings of health and robustness.
I’m not so much interested in the answer to the question, “What’s the least number of minutes I can spend in nature and not die early from overwork?”
I’m more interested in questions like:
If I go for a walk in the prairie, is that as good as going for a walk in the woods? Do I get added benefits if I divide my time between them?
Is doing my workout under a tree in a nicely mowed lawn as good as doing it in the woods?
Is running past a cornfield or soybean field nearly as good as running down a forest path? How about running past a row of osage orange trees? A suburban lawn? Between two suburban lawns on the other sides of 6-foot privacy fences?
If I can’t get to an actual natural area, how should I choose among possibilities like a park, an arboretum, a formal garden, a managed forest, or an unmanaged thicket? How do various water features (lake, stream, creek, natural pond, detention pond, drainage ditch, etc.) affect the benefits?
Is just sitting on a concrete patio outdoors better than sitting indoors?
I have my own tentative answers to many of these questions, but very little data.
I experimented with animal moves a while back, but for various reasons ended up not getting them added to my broader movement practice. Just recently I’ve been trying them again, and this time they seem to be sticking.
Most of the credit goes to Julie Angel and specifically to her free Move More course, which I highly recommend.
I’ve looked at a lot of free movement courses on the web, and most of them don’t suit me. (A class can work great in person, but a video of that class pretty rarely hits the spot as well, and that’s what a lot of free movement classes tend to be.) Julie’s class is different—better.
Half of this, I suspect, comes down to her being a filmmaker as much as she is a movement coach, so she knows how to use the language of moving images to tell a story (and telling a story is often the best way to teach something). Besides that, this particular class—especially the “animal moves” segment—happened to be just exactly the right level for me.
The animal moves themselves are just names given to perfectly ordinary sorts of quadrupedal ground movement—prone crawling (bear crawl), supine crawling (crab crawl), moving forward or laterally from a squat (frog or ape respectively). Those are mostly useful movements. (Prone crawling for going under something. Supine crawling for going down a steep or slippery slope. I’m not sure how useful frog hopping is by itself, but it’s a progression toward doing kong vaults, so useful for that at least.) Giving them animal names is possibly useful as a memory aid if nothing else. But the whole thing can be taken up a notch by coming up with some transition moves that let you go from one animal move to another, and thereby put them together into a flow, which takes it above just being a useful move and turns it into something more like a dance. An opportunity for self-expression, at any rate.
Various people have come up with such transitions, but until I came across the Animal Moves segment of Julie’s Move More class, I hadn’t found an introduction at the right level for me—everything was either too basic, or else too complex, so I either didn’t learn anything, or else I couldn’t make the jump to actually including the moves as part of my practice.
The three or so animal moves, together with the three or so transitions that Julie teaches come out exactly right. Not too much to learn from a video, but enough that I could go ahead and put together a flow—which means that my training session can be much more interesting than just doing one crawl followed by another followed by another.
Just as an aside, I should mention that the transitions are also useful moves in their own right. They’re not just useful for transitioning from prone to supine crawling, but also useful for things like transitioning from sitting on the ground to standing (and vice versa), or transitioning from one seated position to another.
Kindred spirit. (Although for me it was taiji that started it. So many people stand around with their hips thrust forward and their shoulders internally rotated.)
“If there is a downside to studying MovNat, it’s that I can’t help but watch and analyze people to see how well they move. It amazes me how many people I encounter with a bad back that I end up explaining the hip hinge to, and I seem to talk about glutes a lot these days.”
For my fall-semester OLLI class I took “Ballet for Adult Beginners,” taught by Lei Shanbhag.
I took the class as enrichment of my movement practice. I felt like adding something very different to my existing range of taiji, running, natural movement, a tiny bit of parkour, and so on, and I thought that ballet would be very different, and yet still fall within the broad spectrum of “movement practice.”
I also took it as cultural enrichment. I wanted to learn a bit of the vocabulary of ballet—both the literal vocabulary (Allongé, Battement, Ronds de jambes), and the movement vocabulary (learning to see a dance as a conversation between the dancers and one another, and with the audience).
As far as enhancing my movement practice, I’d have to say it wasn’t a complete success—I did the moves in class, but I didn’t really learn them.
That’s entirely a matter of my own abilities: I’m just very slow to learn movement stuff. I have crappy mirror neurons, and I can only learn movement stuff verbally—I have to watch the movement, describe it to myself in words, and memorize the verbal description. Only then can I attempt to do the movement, by playing back my memorized description and attempting to execute it.
As perhaps you can imagine, this is not the quick and easy way to learn to dance. The upshot is that I need to go more slowly than most people (so I have time to create the verbal description), do it more times than most people (so I have time to memorize my verbal description), and then do it yet more times (so I can learn to execute the moves that I’ve described).
I could probably have learned, let’s say, half or a third of what was taught, if we’d done just that much, and spent two or three times as long on each thing.
As it was, I enjoyed the moving very well, but didn’t leave each class with one or two specific things I might practice between then and the next class.
I don’t mean this in any way as a criticism of the class, which was enjoyable and informative. I had the sense that other people in the class (all with some sort of dance background) were picking up much more of the movements than I was. And Lei was constantly asking if the amount done was the right amount. I could have said, “Wait! Before we go on, let’s do this one thing 5 more times.” I chose not to, so that’s all on me.
Despite not learning the movements, I nevertheless did the movements (as best I could), so the classes were a nice workout—well structured, with a warmup, stretching, practice of the moves we were learning, and more stretching.
I was more successful at learning the cultural stuff. I didn’t learn every ballet term, but I learned enough to provide some useful context. Now I can look things up and understand them. I also began to learn to see ballet, which is something that I didn’t really appreciate before.
One tidbit that we learned the first day stuck with me: The posture of ballet dance—feet turned out, hips forward, weight forward—dates back to Louis XIV. Basically, turning your feet out lets you activate your glutes, while shifting your weight forward lets you activate your quads. If you’ve got good musculature in your legs, this posture lets you show that off. (Especially if, as Louis often was, you’re wearing tights.)
Basically, ballet dancers stand that way because Louis XIV thought standing that way made his butt look good.
Several of the exercises Jackie’s physical therapist had her do involved stepping over padded blocks, both forward and back and sideways and back.
That was fine in the gym where the therapist worked, but at home we lacked the padded blocks, so Jackie had to improvise. It turns out that a three-pack of plufs is pretty close to the height of two of the padded blocks stacked on top of one another, and we had a few three-packs on hand.
One thing I had noticed when Jackie was doing the exercise in the gym was that she tended to swing her foot out to the side, rather than lift it up high enough to clear the obstacle. To help herself remember not to do that, Jackie went ahead and built a whole wall of plufs. (In fact, sometimes she’d go so far as to stack an extra box on top of the three-pack to the side, so that straight ahead offered a lower barrier than to the side.)
The course of physical therapy has worked very well for Jackie. After just seven visits over less than a month, she has recovered “normal” range of motion in her hip. The improvement has also shown up in her gait.
Jackie wanted me to use this post to solicit comments from other people about improvised exercise equipment. What household stuff do you guys use?
(I should also mention that our facial tissue of choice is “Puffs plus lotion.” But that’s too long to say, so we call them “plufs,” a term which you are welcome to adopt for your own use.)
A couple of weeks ago the New York Times linked to a new study on age-related declines in human movement. It’s an odd study, but not because of the result (which shows that children start moving less at age 6), because that seems entirely predictable to me, despite the general understanding previously having been that the decline started in adolescence.
Rather, what makes the study seem odd to me is the weird blind spot the researchers seem to have about when and how organisms (including humans) choose to move.
In the study itself the researchers make clear that they had considered the obvious presumption—that kids start moving less when they start going to school: “The overt explanation for this earlier decline could be the increased sitting times due to school.”
The blind spot I’m talking about is presented in the next sentence, where they immediately qualified that:
However, time-specific analysis of [physical activity] has revealed that in addition to the increased [sedentary behavior] during school hours, there was also a distinct decline on weekends, out-of-school days, and during lunchtime.
Schwarzfischer P, Gruszfeld D, Stolarczyk A, et al. Physical Activity and Sedentary Behavior From 6 to 11 Years.Pediatrics. 2019;143(1):e20180994
What’s weird and horrifying is that they make that statement seemingly without it occurring to them that forcing children to sit still for hours on 5/7ths of the days of the week might affect their behavior on the other 2/7ths of the days.
Right off the top of my head I can think of four obvious reasons that would be true:
The required behavior in school normalizes the behavior of extended sitting.
Even a few weeks of enforced extended sitting will result in the kids becoming deconditioned aerobically, making physical activity more difficult and less appealing.
Extended periods spent in any static posture—especially the static posture of sitting—will begin the process of reducing their range of motion (they’ll pretty quickly lose the ability to squat, for example), again making physical activity more difficult and less appealing.
The addition of “physical education” to the kids’ daily schedule sets the pattern of replacing movement with exercise—a time-bound, regimented activity which attempts to pack the health benefits of a week’s worth of movement into just a few hours. (I’ve written about this before.)
Just one instance of this blind spot is bad enough, but it shows up again in a key reference. The researchers say that it is accepted that physical activity declines with age: “A natural and biologically determined decline of total [physical activity] throughout the life span seems likely.” They support that assertion with a couple of references, one of which looks specifically at movement in non-human animals.
Unfortunately that study (Ingram, D. K. Age-related decline in physical activity: generalization to nonhumans. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 32, No. 9, pp. 1623-1629, 2000, which is sadly behind a pay-wall.) has exactly the same blind spot: All the animals studied were captive animals. That study looked at how animal movement varies when an animal is moved from its “home cage” to some other cage. I can’t say I’m the least bit surprised the behavior of those captive animals closely resembles the behavior of children moved from home to school and back again.
I would be very interested in studies that included some free-range animals. (Which isn’t something I can do, but which seems at least possible now that accelerometers are cheap.)
Of course school isn’t the only factor that inhibits children from moving more. The restrictions on self-directed play so well documented by Lenore Skenazy of Let Grow no doubt feed in as well.
So it would be great if there were studies of movement in free-range kids as well.
The final weird and horrifying thing isn’t anything new, but is something I hadn’t really been aware of before: The assumption that an age-related reduction in movement is “natural and biologically determined,” has led directly to public policies that normalize it:
This decline is also represented in recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO): preschool-aged children should accumulate a minimum of 180 minutes per day of total [physical activity], children and adolescents (4–17 years old) at least 60 minutes per day, and adults only a minimum of 30 minutes per day in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA).
To which I say, “Argh!”
I probably wouldn’t be so struck by this if I weren’t already tracking my own movement. (Cheap accelerometers again.)
For some time now I’ve been working to a goal of 105 minutes of movement per day, and over the last few weeks I’ve come pretty close, averaging just over 102 minutes of movement per day, according to Google Fit. (This number, based primarily on steps, somewhat underestimates my movement. In particular it gives me almost no credit for the time I spend teaching taiji, because although there’s plenty of movement, there’s not much stepping.)
The WHO recommendations make me strongly motivated to upgrade my goal for movement to 180 minutes per day.
Why should kids under 6 get all the fun?
(The image at the top is topical only in that it is is a photo from our afternoon walk yesterday.)