Movement in 2017

I’m pretty pleased with 2017 on a movement front. As I sat down to write this, I had been feeling a little discouraged about how slow my progress seemed on the strength front, but when I looked back at where I was one, two, and three years ago, I can see that I’m actually making steady progress. (And, after I’d started drafting this post, I managed to do a chin-up, so I’m especially pleased about that.)

I feel like I’ve pretty much managed to internalize my realization that movement trumps exercise. I certainly don’t move enough, but I’m much more inclined to notice now whenever I do something that minimizes or outsources my movement. This gives me a chance to say, “Never mind. I’ll go ahead and do that myself.”

Since I don’t move enough, I have to add exercise to the mix. Especially in the winter, when the cold and the dark and the ice make it tough to fit all the movement in, I exercise. And I pick my exercises with the goal of improving the capabilities—mobility (especially), strength, control and access to appropriate movement patterns—that I found were limiting factors last summer.

This last—access to movement patterns—is new. I’m just coming to realize that in many cases my limitations are not (or not entirely) a lack of strength or flexibility, but rather are due to poor patterning of the movement. More on that below.

Exercise

I stuck with the exercises I’ve been focusing on for three years now, and added a couple.

Squatting

I finally made real progress in squatting, and it turned out to be a really simple thing that made the difference—and probably a movement pattern thing.

In one of the classes I took with Ashley Price, she had us find the best squat we could do with perfect form. That is, we got in neutral posture with our feet hip width apart, our feet pointing straight forward, our femurs neutral, and then we squatted down only as far as we could go while keeping our shins vertical.

My discovery was that by first getting as far down as I could with my shins vertical, I was in a posture that let me easily lower down the rest of the way into a deep squat. It’s not a perfect deep squat (I wouldn’t want to load up my back with a heavy weight and lift it) and it’s not quite to where I can comfortably rest at the bottom of a deep squat (although it is getting pretty close), but it is now a useful capability. For example, on the last day of the year I got down in a deep squat to look over the choices in our liquor cabinet, and ended up lingering there for some little time. (The range of choices is rather large just now, thanks to a generous gift and a bit of splurging on our own.)

Basically, I’m happy with my progress on squatting.

Hanging

Here I’m finally making great progress—chin-up!

Other than that I’m pretty much doing what I’ve been doing—negative pull-ups. Sometimes I do them for volume (I’ve done as much as 3 sets of 7, or 2 sets of 8 plus a few). Other times I’ve been doing many fewer sets and reps, concentrating instead on doing them very slowly.

Just since doing my chin-up I’ve begun to recognize a movement pattern issue here as well. Based on how sore my traps were after my first chin-up, while my lats weren’t sore at all, I think I’m failing to initiate the pull with my lats. I’m addressing that two ways. First, I’m doing the negative pull-ups very slowly, trying to find the point where I transition to using my lats and emphasize that part of the move. Second, I’m trying to specifically engage the lats by pulling my shoulders back and down before trying to pull myself up.

Besides all that I’m sticking with my other hanging exercises—swinging side-to-side and back-to-front, leg raises, knee-ups, and I’ve added some twisting knee-ups as well, turning my hips to alternate sides and raising my knees toward my elbow on that side. I’m also ready to start doing some traversals along the bar.

Wall dip

I haven’t made much progress here, for much the same reasons as last year: wall dips are hard, and I’ve been working on various progressions instead. I play around with bench dips and (rather shallow) parallel bar dips and wall supports.

Another reason I’m not making much progress here is that for my main pushing exercise I’ve been emphasizing pushups.

Toe stretches

I’m reasonably pleased with my progress on toe flexibility as well, even though I haven’t actually increased my range of motion much. What I’ve done is improve my ankle dorsiflexion enough that I’ve been able to start doing the things I couldn’t do because of limited toe flexibility.

There’s a particular move I wanted to be able to do, that involved shifting from a squat to a deep knee bend, then lowering the knees to the ground and then kneeling. It can also be reversed by flexing the ankles to tuck the toes under, rocking back to get into a deep knee bend, and then shifting to a squat for standing back up.

Among other things, this is a martial arts move: You can move from kneeling to standing while keeping your hands free to block an attack (or prepare to launch one).

I can sorta do that now. Not smoothly, and not without an amount of toe stretching that feels a bit excessive, but vastly better than two years ago where a single attempt hurt my knees and toes enough that it took weeks to recover.

Pushups

As I said, instead of dips I’ve instead been focusing on pushups. I’ve made good progress here as well: I can now do 8 pushups (up from 1 a little over a year ago). I’ve also greatly improved my form—keeping my elbows tucked in close to my sides, rather than letting them flair out as I’d probably done since I was a kid in gym class. (Your humeri should be neutral with your elbow pits pointed forward.)

Now that I can do 8 pushups it’s about time to start doing multiple sets—maybe starting with 2 sets of 5? I’ll try that in a couple of days.

I don’t have long-term plans to emphasize pushups though. I’ll keep doing them, but once I can do a couple of sets of pushups and still have some strength left in my triceps, I’ll get back to work on the various sorts of dips.

Kettlebell swings

This year I added kettlebell swings to my exercise regimen. I want to talk about this a bit, because there’s a story here.

About a year and a half ago I was out on a very long walk with Jackie. Toward the end we sat down on some concrete benches for a short rest, and I found that there was an uncomfortable lump right behind where I was sitting. Shifting around to find a lumpless spot was not successful. Eventually I figured it out: I had lost enough weight that I no longer had enough cushioning to keep my tailbone up off the bench; the lump I felt was my coccyx.

Figuring that bigger glutes would be a better choice for keeping my coccyx up off the bench than fat anyway, I started boosting the weight I used in my goblet squats. Then I remembered an old post by Tim Ferris that recommended kettlebell swings as the best glute exercise. Then some anonymous kind soul donated a 45 lb kettlebell to the Winfield Village fitness room.

Looking at my training log, it appears that I started doing kettlebell swings in January, and worked up to 3 sets of 25 by April. As Tim had recommended 75 reps as a target, I’ve left it there. I don’t have data on the size of my glutes, but I’m no longer bothered when I sit on a hard bench.

I use the kettlebell swings as my high-intensity interval training as well. A set of 25 swings spikes my heart rate up right toward my max heart rate. (I’ve actually seen heart rates above my estimated max heart rate, which just means that the estimate is a bit off.) Each set takes about 50 seconds, and I follow it with as much rest as I need to get my heart rate back down around 100, which works out to two or three minutes.

I’ve toyed with the idea of adding a fourth set, and might yet do that.

Non-exercise movement

My main non-exercise movement is and always has been walking. It was a bit limited in the second half of this year because I hurt my feet, and one foot in particular has taken a long time to recover.

I think what happened was this: I was waiting for the bus, which unbeknownst to me had been rerouted due to road construction. Seeing the bus zip past a block away, I took off running to try to catch it at the next stop. In the rush I think I must have fallen into an old heel-strike movement pattern, bruising my heels, resulting in this nagging foot pain. Only in the last few days of the year does it seem to finally be completely resolved.

Walking

I still walk a good bit for transportation, just less than I was doing before I hurt my feet. I’ve also done less walking with Jackie since she started working at Great Harvest bakery. (This does not mean less walking for her—she walks to work most days.)

I expect my walking quantity to return to its old baseline quantities in the new year.

Running

Running was also curtailed by my foot injury. Before I hurt my foot I had been increasing my running distances as well, working my way up to where I did an 8-mile run for the first time in many years.

Some of my running is exercise, but a good bit is movement (as, for example, the sprint to catch the bus where I injured my feet.)

Parkour

I did spend a little time with the campus parkour club, but once again timidity (both movement timidity and social timidity) kept me from doing as much as I might have.

Each summer I mean to step this up. Maybe 2018 will be the year.

Taiji

For most of the year I teach two taiji classes—a beginners class that meets for an hour twice a week, and a group practice for continuing students (we don’t consider ourselves “advanced”) that meets for an hour three times a week. Besides that I do some taiji and qigong throughout most days. I do some qigong to loosen up in the morning. I do some before lifting to warm up, and then I do some between sets as “active recovery.” I might do a whole short form when I feel like a little moving mediation would do me some good, or even a whole long form when I feel like a lot of moving meditation would do me some good.

Basically, I do a lot of taiji.

Even when I’m not teaching I include it as part of my daily movement, simply because it has proven itself such a powerful tool for helping me move and feel better.

Push hands

Over the summer I got back together with my friends who practice push hands a few times, but we were never able to get a regular thing going, which is very sad. I’ll try again next summer.

Stewardship work days

I have continued my practice of joining Jackie for occasional stewardship work days at natural areas in and around Urbana. (I even did one without Jackie—a prairie burn.)

These are perfect examples of non-exercise movement: We don’t do them for the exercise (although we get plenty); we do them to improve the land.

They are very satisfying for many reasons—doing hard work with friends is always satisfying, contributing to the community (making the parks better) doubly so. I think an additional reason is that the actual physical movements and mental activity that we do while locating and removing invasive plants is virtually identical to those that our hunting-and-gathering ancestors must have done for most of the past two hundred  thousand years. (I see now that I made exactly the same point last year.)

Looking ahead

With one possible exception, my plans for the new year don’t include big changes, just continuing progress. (The possible exception is treating myself to a month pass to Urbana Boulders and putting my new upper-body strength to work climbing walls.)

I have had some success in getting my mind right with the cold, this year in particular, but also gradually over the past several years. I’m getting in more outdoor exercise this year than last, and a lot more than I did five or ten years ago. That, plus the indoor strength training and the taiji, look to stand me in good stead for getting 2018 off to a good start.

We’re planning a spring trip to some national parks in southern Utah which will entail a good bit of walking, so we have that bit of extra motivation to keep up with our walking over the winter.

Happy New Year!

I did a chin-up!

For the first time since I was in elementary school, I did a chin-up.

I’ve actually been working on pull-ups, which seems like a more useful capability: If you can do a pull-up, you have a shot at being able to pull yourself up onto a wall or up out of a hole. I’m not quite there yet. But along with my pull-up training I’ve taken an occasional stab at doing a chin-up, and today I managed it.

All it took was three years of ceaseless effort.

Getting my mind right with the cold

After posting a couple of weeks ago about how I was having trouble adjusting to the cold and dark, I got a comment from Srikanth Perinkulam suggesting that I take a look at What Doesn’t Kill Us by Scott Carney, which I have now done.

The book grabbed me right from the start. The forward by Wim Hof is delightful. The preface sets the stage for the climactic event. In the introduction the author suggests that his spirit animal is a jellyfish—a comforting thought for someone like me whose totemic animal is the sloth.

Because the first few pages were so interesting, I suggested that my brother use Amazon’s “look inside” feature to read them, but he was unwilling to do so—pretending to be daunted by the fact that the “look inside” feature depends on scripts he had turned off in his web browser. He also declared the book to be “pseudoscientific drivel.” (A comment that must have been—since he wouldn’t read even a few pages—based entirely on the subtitle: How Freezing Water, Extreme Altitude, and Environmental Conditioning Will Renew Our Lost Evolutionary Strength.)

Of course it’s not a scientific book, but rather a journalistic one, and my urging was because I thought he would appreciate how well the story was set up—and the jellyfish spirit animal. After all, my brother’s totemic animal is the slug.

The book does talk a good bit about new scientific research into how the body responds to cold and other stresses. Part of the background that is being reported on is emerging evidence that humans have some degree of control over all sorts of autonomic responses, and that one path to gaining that control is by exposing yourself to stresses that trigger those responses, so as to gain an opportunity to practice exerting control.

One area that’s still disputable is how much of that control is real, and how much of of the observable changes are really a matter of “getting your mind right” about the stressor—maybe all of the changes being measured, such as increased mitochondria turning white fat into beige fat (or turning muscle that preferentially burns carbs into muscle that preferentially burns fat), are merely incidental, and the real difference is just deciding that being a little bit cold isn’t so bad.

Since that was, after all, why I was reading the book, that would not be so bad either.

Last winter, when I got off to a better start than I had this year, much of the change in attitude had been prompted by Katy Bowman’s comments pointing out that the actions your body takes in response to cold (vasoconstriction, shivering, activation of the arrector pili muscles) are all movements—movements that, like squatting and crawling, are done all too rarely these days by most people.

The arrector pili muscles in particular intrigue me. Always described as a left-over muscle that helps animals keep warm by making their hairs stand up for extra insulation, it seems like an awfully complex mechanism to have been so well conserved in humans if that’s all it was for. I suspect they have additional uses. Perhaps the calories burned pulling on hair follicles provides a bit of local thermogenesis that can stave off frostbite without the risk to core body temperature that would result if the area were warmed by blood-flow.

Carny talks a bit about vasoconstriction, suggesting that the pain associated with it is due to the fact that it’s such an uncommon movement in most people. If you train yourself for it, he says, it becomes much less uncomfortable.

Carny also has interesting things to say about non-shivering thermogenesis, which is produced by specialized mitochondria that live in brown fat and beige fat (but also apparently in muscle). In particular, he says that the process of converting white fat to beige fat starts with temperature sensing nerves in the skin! I would have assumed that difficulty maintaining core body temperature would have been the initiator, but apparently not: All you need to do is get your skin cold. This means that going for cold-weather runs will do the trick, which has to be the easiest possible way to do it, because your body produces enough heat while running to scarcely feel cold at all.

Thinking about this sort of thing makes it easier for me to get my mind right with winter.

Also helpful is that we’re getting a few days of less-cold weather. It’s still cold enough to provide the necessary circumstances to induce some cold adaptation, but not so cold that I immediately turn up the thermostat and pull out my warmest parka whenever I need to go outside. In fact, I’ve been making  a point of dressing slightly less warmly—choosing a jacket one notch down—than I would if comfort were my only criterion.

I expect that by the time full-blown winter weather arrives, I’ll have gotten my mind right.

Feeling good versus feeling young

A friend of mine posted to her Facebook page recently criticizing a whole category of ageist comments along the lines of “You’re only as old as you feel.”

It caught my interest in particular because I’d been mentally composing a post about how I just turned 58, but I’m not suffering the aches and pains that supposedly go along with getting old. My friend’s post reminded me that referring to this as “feeling young” is problematic. And yet, I find that I come down on the other side of this issue. Sure, there is a certain irrefutable accuracy to say that your age is the current year minus your birth year, but age is many things besides a mathematical calculation—at a minimum it’s a social construction, and also perhaps a collection of biological circumstances.

It’s true that what I mean—and what perhaps I should say—is I feel good. Better, in fact, than I’ve felt in years. I’m stronger, more flexible, and more agile than I’ve been in longer than I can remember. I move with more ease, more power, and more control. I have more endurance. I’m certainly more comfortable in my own skin.

A lot of this is just good luck, of course—good genes, avoiding serious injuries and serious illnesses so far.

Beyond good luck I credit my movement practice for most of the rest. Taiji. Walking and hiking. Running (merely an adjunct, but one I enjoy in particular). After years of lifting with machines to little noticeable effect I now do almost all my strength training with bodyweight exercises and am having much more success. (The main exception to pure bodyweight exercise is doing kettlebell swings for my high-intensity interval training, which I ought to write about because it seems to be doing some good, and is also quick and fun.) Push hands I wrote about recently. Animal movement ditto. So new I haven’t had a chance to write much about it yet, I did yoga for the first time last week.

But to bring this back full circle, I’m not so sure that it’s wrong to talk about “feeling young.” My friend is right—growing old is a privilege not everyone enjoys. It is indeed better than the alternative: dying young. But just as I can see her objections to denying age (as if refusing to acknowledge it meant something), I object to denying one’s felt experience. If someone says that they “feel young,” does an appeal to mere arithmetic justify correcting them?

Certainly I am not the only person to feel this way. There are always people trying to express health and fitness in terms of age. There are websites that will suggest a guess as to your physiological age vaguely based on your weight and your activity level. Various practitioners of various disciplines will measure specific things ranging from your maximum heart rate to the length of your telomeres and use the results to calculate a biological age.

They’re all pretty dubious, but I find that I do not object in principle to thinking and talking about concepts like health, fitness, and vitality in terms of age. Even though there are many unhealthy young people and many old people who are fit and vital, I think the notion resonates in a useful way.

As for me, I feel good. I also feel younger than I’ve felt in years.

Expanding my movement practice: Animal movements

My most recent addition to my movement practice, just started, is animal movements.

These are basically just ground exercises where the shapes are inspired by animal movements: Bear and Crab crawls, Ape and Duck walks, transitions from one to another.

Playing on a fallen log at the Nature Playscape at Homer Lake

My hope is that doing them will help me connect some of my mobility practice with movement (as opposed to static stretches). My hip mobility and my toe and ankle dorsiflection are limited enough that I can’t do certain things that I’d like to do—in particular a deep squat, but also a particular kneeling-to-standing transition. Probably other things I can’t think of at the moment.

For three years I’ve been working on these aspects of flexibility/mobility and I’m making progress, but I’m not there yet. I’m not sure what it will take to get there, but one possibility that comes to mind is that I haven’t tried to connect these things with other movements. I’ve done isolated stretches, and I’ve done assisted/bolstered versions of the movements, but I haven’t tried to use the movements as part of a sequence of other movements. Very possibly my difficulty is not merely my muscles being “too tight,” but rather springs from a the lack of a proper mind-body connection linking these moves and other moves I do.

My hope is that the animal forms, by giving me an opportunity to pass through these postures (rather than merely trying to hold them as static stretches) may help make the mind-body connection in a way that lets me relax into the postures quicker than just more stretching would do.

In any case, I’ve been meaning for a long time to increase the amount of ground exercises I do and not getting around to it, and animal movements—by giving me a framework for that—have finally gotten me started.

I don’t think I’m going to stick with the animal forms for long. There are plenty of natural human ground movements which are largely similar, but some of the animal forms modify them to justify the name, and although that can be fun, my own affinity is always going to be for natural human movement.

Still, tolerating the silliness can lead to impressive results in terms of power and control. Check out for example, this video of movement guru Mike Fitch demonstrating what an animal movement practice he calls Animal Flow looks like:

Once I’ve established the habit I’ll look to transition away from animal forms and just do combos of human-style crawling, rolling, sitting, squatting, kneeling—and the transitions between them.

Expanding my movement practice: Push hands

I haven’t written much yet about adding push hands to my movement practice, mainly because I don’t feel competent to describe it well.

Push hands is a taiji training technique—a way to learn how to accept and redirect force. I view it as falling roughly at the midpoint between taiji as moving meditation and taiji as a martial art.

My taiji teacher wasn’t really interested in push hands, I think because he wasn’t really interested in the martial aspects of taiji. He did give us the barest exposure to pushing, so I wasn’t a complete novice, but nearly so.

I am interested in the martial aspects of taiji, so I was delighted last year when I met a couple of people who were interested in pushing. We got together several times last fall, then let our training fall by the wayside over the winter, but started meeting again once the weather turned nice in late spring.

One of the friends I push with describes push hands as a test or diagnostic for your form practice: If your form practice is sound, you will be good at push hands.

Already my push hands practice is informing my form practice, as I learn to shift my weight to move, but simply to turn my waist to accept and redirect energy. I’m trying to learn to keep my shoulders down (a work in progress), and I’m trying to learn to keep my arms and shoulders connected to my core (same, but with less progress).

Great fun.

Gathering garlic mustard

I’ve been occasionally joining Jackie when she does stewardship workdays at natural areas around the county as part of her Master Naturalist work. They’re fun, and they fit in very well with my shift away from exercise and toward movement. Our work Sunday, clearing garlic mustard from the South Arboretum Woods, is a great example.

(Garlic mustard is a nasty invasive, largely because the first-year growth leafs out very early, and covers the ground almost completely. Native plants emerge a little later in the spring, by which time they can’t get enough light to get going. The upshot is that the understory loses most of its natural diversity, becoming just a vast carpet of garlic mustard.)

What we did Sunday was make our way through the woods, spotting and then pulling up all the second-year garlic mustard. (It’s a biennial. The first year is the low ground cover. The second year it puts up a flowering stalk and produces seeds. If you can get the flowering stalks before they set seed, you can make a dent in the local garlic mustard density.)

What struck me was how similar our activity was to “gathering” à la hunting and gathering. It was physically similar—walking through the woods, and then squatting, bending, reaching, and pulling. It was also mentally similar—doing exactly the same pattern-matching that someone seeking to gather edible or medicinal plants would do.

I suspect that both of these aspects of this activity enhance the well-known beneficial effects of “forest bathing” (aka spending time in the woods).

The area we were clearing has a lot of downed branches, big and small, some partially or completely hidden by the ground cover, making for a complex walking surface—more good stuff for both the body and the brain.

Of course, volunteering for and participating in a stewardship work day produces all sorts of additional benefits—in particular, doing something good for the local communities (both the human community that uses the space and the natural community that inhabits it) is rewarding, as is making social connections with the other volunteers and engaging together on a common effort.

Every time I do one, I am reinforced in my desire to do more stewardship workdays, despite my slothful nature.

(The picture at the top is another view of the Cecropia moth that Jackie spotted while we were there.)

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.