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!

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.

Exercise

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.

Squatting

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.

Hanging

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.

Pushups

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

Walking

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.

Running

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.

Parkour

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.

Taiji

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.

 

Theory and Practice of Neurogenesis

Even though I’m finding my self-care regimen for seasonal depression pretty adequate these days, I’m always interested in more tools. One thing that caught my attention recently was an interview with Brant Cortright in which he talked about his book The Neurogenesis Diet and Lifestyle.

Cortright has a bunch of interesting things to say, one of which I already knew: that depression is not a disorder of serotonin deficiency. According to him—and this I did not know—the way SSRIs work is by promoting neurogenesis. In the interview he said that depression turns out to be caused by a lack of neurogenesis, as are several other disorders (e.g. Alzheimer’s).

I checked the local libraries for copies of his book without success, but in my searches I happened upon this article: Successful brain aging: plasticity, environmental enrichment, and lifestyle by Francisco Mora, which seems to cover pretty much the same ground.

People are looking very hard at drugs besides SSRIs to promote brain plasticity, but the whole idea sounds problematic to me, so I’m interested in the various non-drug interventions suggested by Cortright and Mora. Fortunately, it seems that neurogenesis is easy to increase, by doing the obvious things we already know about:

  • Environmental enrichment
  • Calorie restriction
  • Aerobic exercise
  • Adequate levels of certain nutrients (omega-3s, vitamin E).

I think of my artist dates in particular as environmental enrichment, but of course time spent in nature counts as well. The parkour I do probably counts double, because there’s learning how to execute the moves, but there’s also learning to see the environment as a place where those moves are useful.

My weight loss practices have been substantially motivated by the science around calorie restriction as a way to improve health generally, with additional neurogenesis just one factor.

My experience over the previous 30 years convinced me that approaching calorie restriction in a numerical, analytical fashion—tracking what I ate, estimating the calorie content, aiming for some target X% below maintenance—would be unsuccessful. Instead, I came at it from the other direction: If I’m losing weight, I must be restricting my calories.

The caloric deficit implied by my weight loss over the past five years is just about 100 calories per day. Maintenance for me is probably around 1800 calories per day, so I’ve averaged about 5.5% below. It would probably be more accurate to say that I’ve averaged about 10% below maintenance for about half that time, as I’ve generally lost weight during the summers while maintaining a stable weight through the winters. Either number is well shy of the “20% to 40%” reduction that’s been shown to decrease the rate of aging of the brain, but I rather suspect that the benefit exists even at these lower levels—with the added bonus of being sustainable over a much longer period of time. (I mean, how long can you maintain a 40% deficit below maintenance before you simply waste away?)

According to Mora, aerobic exercise seems to increase neurogenesis by the same chemical pathways as calorie restriction. According to Cortright, it has to be aerobic activity of substantial duration—some twenty minutes or more. In particular, the sort of HIIT workouts so beloved of the paleo/primal folks don’t seem to produce the same effect. That’s fine with me: Humans are much too well-adapted for endurance running for me to buy into the idea that primitive humans didn’t do marathon-distance runs when they needed to. Besides, I enjoy long runs.

Of course, neurogenesis is reduced by the obvious things:

  • Neurotoxins (mercury, lead, pesticides, etc.)
  • Traumatic brain injuries (concussions, etc.)
  • High blood glucose levels
  • Stress.

My parents made a considerable effort to keep me and my brother free of neurotoxins, and I have managed to avoid concussions so far. I’m sure I subjected myself to excessive blood glucose levels for years, but I think I’ve got that under control now. I also subjected myself to excessive levels of stress for years, due to the vicious circle of my seasonal depression making me unproductive, my lack of productivity making me stress about losing my job, and the stress no doubt worsening my depression. I’ve got that under control now as well.

Really then, this whole neurogenesis thing doesn’t so much give me new strategies for staving off depression, as provide a conceptual framework for organizing the strategies I’m already using.

Even just that seems worthwhile.

(The image at the top is of these great doors at the Environmental Education Center at Kennekuk County Park. The branching trees reminded me of neurons, a little.)

Fighting seasonal depression with woollies

I do a lot of things to stave off winter depression. I walk. I spend time in nature. I spend time walking in nature. I move in other ways—taiji, lifting, stretching, running, parkour. I use my HappyLight™. I take vitamin D. But probably most important is finding things to take delight in.

Jackie doesn’t suffer with the dark days of winter the way I do, which is probably a matter of brain chemistry, but perhaps another factor is that she is very good at taking delight in winter as an opportunity to wear her woollies.

I’m trying to do the same.

It helps that I have new winter clothes, and old winter clothes that fit again. The photo on this page shows me walking in nature, wearing a purple sweater my mom knit for me years ago.

Besides my old sweaters and my new sweaters, I have a smashing wool vest that Jackie gave me, some wool pants that I bought as field pants (but that are perhaps too nice to wear in the field), and a vast collection of scarves that Jackie wove and knit for me. And that’s just the woollies. I also have a nice collection of moleskin and flannel garments perfect for winter, various fleecy things, and a range of jackets and coats to cover all possible temperatures from “slightly brisk” to “well north of the arctic circle.”

This year, I’ll try to take delight in my seasonally appropriate garments, especially the woollies, and see if that won’t carry me through to spring.

Turn up the volume

A true fact about me: I’m terrible at watching another person move and then moving in the same way. My coping mechanism for this limitation is that instead of doing what ordinary people do—watching and then doing the same thing—I go through an intermediate step of describing the move in words, and then executing my verbal description.

It’s a slow process. First I have to watch enough times to figure out what the verbal description is, and then I have work through the move very slowly, executing my verbal description while (slowly, and with difficulty) comparing what I’m doing to what I’m supposed to be doing.

Because of all this, I’ve always found it hard to learn things like dance moves and martial arts moves, but it also makes it hard to learn even just ordinary exercise moves.

I mention this, because it has a lot to do with why I’m only now starting to turn up the volume on my exercise: Over the past year, I have added a lot of new exercise moves, drawn from Katy Bowman’s Move Your DNA, from Ben Musholt’s Parkour Strength Training, from Erwan Le Corre’s MovNat videos, and from other sources. For a long time, I’ve felt awkward doing a lot of these moves, and am only now starting to feel like I’m doing them well enough that it’d be safe to start doing them in higher volumes.

One thing that Julie Angel’s book Breaking the Jump reminded me of was that the early parkour practitioners pushed the volume way up in their training, doing hundreds of push-ups, thousands of sit-ups, and covering long distances balancing on a rail (or hanging under a girder, or jumping from rock-to-rock or post-to-post) every day, often multiple times a day.

Of course I can’t do hundreds of push-ups or thousands of sit-ups. What I can do—what I’ve started doing this week—is add sets. I can do 40 meters of quadrupedal movement, and then do another 40 meters later in my training session. I can do 4 negative pull-ups, and then another 4, and then another 3. And so on.

In between sets, I can do the more flexibility oriented restorative exercises. (Right now I’m working on getting the ankle, knee, and hip mobility I need to do deep squats.)

I started upping the volume on the pull-ups and quadrupedal movement a while ago. Now I’m adding some of the newer exercises, such as lunges and squats, that I hadn’t done before, and that felt awkward enough that I wasn’t inclined to add volume.

So far it’s feeling really good.

Oh, and to bring things full circle, it turns out there is an upside to my coping mechanism for my inability to mirror movement—it has made me a better tai chi instructor. When I’m teaching a move, I already have a verbal description of how the move goes. I already have a vocabulary out of which to build descriptions. And I have a lot of practice at producing a verbal description of a movement. These things have turned out to be very helpful.

Book review: Breaking the Jump by Julie Angel

breaking-the-jump-coverI’m not sure exactly when I discovered parkour. Its first mention here in my blog is in May 2014 when I talk about starting to practice precisions and shoulder rolls.

By then, Julie Angel had already finished a PhD and created a large body of photos and videos on parkour.

I came across her work fairly early, and immediately appreciated its strength, so I was delighted to learn that she was writing a book. I bought a copy as soon as it came out, and spent last week reading it.

I’d read some about the early history of parkour, so I knew about David Belle as an individual and the Yamakasi as a group, but this was largely my first exposure to the other early practitioners as individuals—and a bunch of interesting individuals they are.

Early in the book Angel takes a stab at tweezing out the many threads that went into making parkour something that appeared in this place at this time: The urban planning that produced the built infrastructure in Lisses and that also drew in the immigrant population that lived there. The life- and family- histories of the handful of young men who became the Yamakasi. The kinds of men they were. Angel never really pins down exactly why these young men produced parkour when no one else had done so, but it’s a credible effort at answering a question that’s probably unanswerable.

Because on the one hand, many other groups of young men could have created parkour. Most of the key traits of these young men—a certain facility with movement; a willingness to train very, very hard; a tendency to push one another to ever greater efforts (and to let themselves be pushed)—are not that rare. Although many young men are clumsy or lazy, you need only look among the national-level competitors in any boys or junior individual sport, or even at any good high school sports team, to find both movement skill and the capacity for hard training.

More important than those things—which are, as I say, fairly common among young men—was an ethos that leaned against that willingness to push and be pushed. It’s an ethos exemplified in some of their sayings—things like “Start together, finish together,” and “Be strong to be useful.” Everyone was pushed outside their comfort zone, but no one was pushed to attempt anything that he didn’t know he could succeed at. It is surely the reason that early parkour practitioners had such an incredibly low rate of training injuries whether from accidents or from overtraining. (Would that runners were as durable.)

New to me—and a perfect example of that ethos—is the picture Julie Angel gradually paints of Williams Belle. Younger than the others, he was someone I hadn’t even been aware of until I read the book. Williams is portrayed as having all the movement skill and all the willingness to train very, very hard as any of the other pioneers, but lacking the ego of David Belle, and possessing teaching methods that seem uniquely gentle.

She has Stéphane Vigroux saying this about Williams:

On the surface it was the same training school, but somehow the energy and feel when observing Williams was different. . . . From the first jump . . . Williams had known that the discipline should be about helping and sharing with others.

It makes Williams sound like someone I’d like to get to know.

Angel includes a good look at the prehistory of parkour—Georges Hébert and others—and a look at contemporaries who created things that overlap—people like Erwan Le Corre—but it’s not really about them. Most of the book is about the early practitioners. But only most of the book. A little bit—maybe ten or fifteen percent—is kind of a memoir of Julie Angel’s own experiences beginning with parkour. Her stories of her struggles to break her own jumps, learn to balance on a rail, or simply to attend her first class are very effective at illuminating the journey of the founders.

Maybe she used every such story she had—at least, that’s the only good reason I can think of for including so few, because frankly, those bits are some of the best bits in the book. If she wrote a longer memoir of her own journey learning parkour, I’d buy it.

If you’re interested in the history of parkour, and especially if you’re interested in understanding what it meant to those early folks—what it meant to work together, to train very hard, to confront their fears and overcome them together—this is an outstanding book

Breaking the Jump: The secret story of parkour’s high-flying rebellion by Julie Angel.

Fencing, taiji, parkour, oh my!

I don’t know how long I’ve wanted to learn to fence. At least as far back as 7th grade when I read Glory Road, and probably before then. Back in the 1960s and 1970s in Kalamazoo, I was unable to come up with a way to learn, but nowadays in Champaign it’s possible—because there’s The Point Fencing Club.

The minimalist option would be to take the $100 three-day adult fencing workshop in mid-June. The dates are slightly awkward, as that’s very likely exactly when my dad might come to visit, but otherwise it would be just the thing.

Alternatively, I could go ahead and join for the summer for $150 (plus another $100 or so to buy my own foil, plastron, jacket, glove, and mask). Upside of that: I’d have my own foil! Downside: it’s a lot of money. Plus, if I enjoyed it, I’d end up wanting to keep doing it, which would cost something like $750 a year.

I’ve considered doing this each summer for years now and have never done it due to the cost and scheduling issues. This year it seems like a real possibility.

Another thing I’ve been meaning to do each summer for a while now is study taiji with The Center for Taiji Studies.

Founded by my teacher’s teacher, they’re a strong local group that takes a somewhat more martial perspective on taiji than my teacher, which very much appeals to me.

Like with fencing, the main obstacles have long been scheduling and cost. Taking weekly classes for the summer looks to come to $234, so almost exactly the same as it would cost to spend the summer fencing.

There’s slightly less downside. Since I already have a taiji practice in place for fall, winter, and spring, there will be less of an inclination to spend another several hundred dollars a year to continue practicing with them year-round.

A third thing that I meant to do last summer and will almost certainly do this summer is join the local campus parkour club for their practice sessions over the summer.

That has the enormous upside of being free. The downside is that they are just group practice sessions, and not formal classes.

I went one time last summer, and actually got a lot of instruction. I expect that if I showed up, practiced with the other folks there, and asked people to show me the stuff I didn’t know, I could continue to get instruction. Of course, that’s not the same as having a skilled instructor put together a curriculum designed to teach the basic skills in a sensible order.

As I say, these are all things I’ve been wanting to do for as long as I knew they were things. I’m still working out the details, but this summer I’ll start working on the backlog.

Winter parkour prep—a look back

A few months ago, I wrote about my plan to do some strength training to prepare myself for parkour training this summer. As I’m now working on my plan for the summer, I thought I ought to evaluate how my winter’s training had gone.

There were four specific areas I wanted to work on:

  • Hanging
  • Wall support/wall dip
  • Squatting
  • Toe flexibility

Although my progress was mixed, I’m reasonably happy with how things have gone.

I’m most pleased with the hanging. I don’t remember for sure how far I had gotten last summer—I think I remember hanging for forty seconds—but I’m sure I beat it this year. (Recent best: one minute fifteen seconds.) In addition, I started adding negative pull-ups to my workout, and can now do four of them. (And do them with pretty good control.) I may be within striking distance of my first pull-up!

I’ve been quite lazy about the wall support and wall dip exercises. In my brain the reason for this is that I don’t have a good wall to practice on, which is crazy, because the window seat is right here about two feet from where I’m sitting, and it’s a perfectly good place to do the exercise. It’s not perfect, though: It’s too low, so I have to bend my knees to get my feet off the ground, and that means that I can’t do the most parkour-like version of the exercise in which my feet can contribute to the effort. Which is no excuse for not doing the upper-body part of the exercise, but that’s brains for you.

I’m not sure I made much headway with the squatting, although I figured out that ankle flexibility is my main limitation. If I prop my heels up a couple of inches, I can squat down, linger there for a while, and stand back up again. Without the heel support, I need some other aid—something to hang onto to keep myself from topping over backward. I’ve been doing a lot of stretching for calf (and hamstring) tightness, and also just spending some time in a squat (with heel support). I’ve also done some bodyweight squats, going as low as I can, and some goblet squats (where the weight allows me to get all the way down without toppling over, and provides some resistance).

I think I did gain some toe flexibility, or perhaps just a better understanding of my limitations. I’m hoping that I improved enough that I’ll be able to do things like quadrupedal motion barefoot without hurting my toes. In any case, I’m pretty sure that even my most minimal shoes will provide adequate protection that I can train while I continue to work on it.

Besides just progress, I thought I’d mention one further insight: For a while in the autumn I’d been just a little restless during the night—I’d wake up and toss and turn, and often end up getting up for a bit before I was able to get back to sleep. I was very surprised to discover that this immediately got better. My theory is that it was due to the stretching I’ve been doing to improve my squatting: My lack of flexibility meant that I’d start getting achy and uncomfortable after a few hours of lying still, and the stretching improved that almost immediately.

As I said up at the top, I’m working on my plan for the summer. I’ll be sharing those thoughts shortly.

More gamifying exercise—and life

Via an Art of Manliness podcast interview with Steve Kamb, I just learned about his new book Level Up Your Life. The book is just out, so it’s not so surprising that I hadn’t been aware of it before, but I’m a bit surprised that I hadn’t been more aware of the author’s website Nerd Fitness, which has been around for a while.

The site can’t be completely new to me: my browser remembers that I previously visited the definitive guide to parkour for beginners page, but I must have been totally focused on parkour that day, because I didn’t notice that the site is also full of other stuff that is very much my sort of thing: gamifying exercise (and life).

I haven’t read the book, but the interview laid out the case for how gamification can help you succeed, and not just at exercise. Kamb described how to use the motivational tricks of video games—that ones that keep you playing for one more minute, and then one more level, and then one more quest—and apply them to real life. Figure out what you want to do, and then divide those big goals into quests. Just like in a game, design a series of sub-quests, each one designed to give you the skills and experience to accomplish the next sub-quest, until finally you’re ready for the final level, where you face the biggest challenges, and overcome them.

It works great for fitness, where you can set a whole series of fitness goals, but the author was clear that it worked just as well for non-fitness goals. He talked in particular about international travel—that he wanted to do, but found intimidating, and that he approached by designing a series of trips that let him overcome one daunting aspect at a time (distance, foreign language, traveling alone, etc.). He also talked about learning to play a musical instrument, and then leveling up to where he could perform for an audience.

As someone who does just a little gamification of his own life, I got a bunch of useful ideas from the interview.

One I liked was a way to help you divide your attention among the inevitably many high-priority items in your life: the classic comic book trick of a secret identity. By day, a mild-mannered cubicle worker; by night, a secret agent honing his parkour skills for when he’ll need them to complete his mission (and survive the aftermath). Just like any superhero, you need to give both parts of your life the full attention they’re due.

Another was to use a trick nabbed from games for designing rewards for successfully leveling up: Instead of rewarding yourself with a taste of failure (such as rewarding yourself for losing weight with a supersized fast-food meal), do what video games do: give yourself a reward that improves your chance of success with the next quest. If your quest was to learn how to cook, reward yourself at level 5 by buying a really good chef’s knife, and then at level 20 by traveling to France for a workshop at a world-class cooking school. If you pay careful attention to this as you design your series of sub-quests—instead of just making it up as you go along—I can see you drastically increasing your chance of success at many of the harder sub-quests (because you have provided yourself with the right tool), while simultaneously saving a bunch of money.

Another is to gather allies for your quest. It is very hard to succeed in any area of your life unless the people around you are also successes in their lives. There is a certain temptation to be a big fish in a small pond—to gather people around you that you’re superior to—but then you don’t have people you can rely on when you face problems you can’t handle. There is also the temptation to let people who are better than you do for you what you can’t do yourself—but what would their motivation be? Just as in a multi-player video game, in real life you’re better off (and have more fun) if you have a team of people at about your level. If you’re a beginner, you certainly want a few higher-level players to help, and it’s always okay to have a few lower-level players that you can mentor. Ideally—and it often works out this way in practice—everyone will be better than you at some things and not as good at others. Then you can both help one another out; both learn from one another.

Those are just the things I remember from the interview, there’s more to it than that.

It sounds like a great book. I’ll have to get a copy, and I’ll also have to take a closer look at both Nerd Fitness and the book’s companion site Level Up Your Life.

Winter fitness goal: Building strength for parkour

A year or more ago, I came upon a pretty good article (linked at the bottom of this post) with some good, basic exercises intended to provide a base for parkour training. I’d had it in my head to do those exercises last winter and be ready to do some serious parkour training in the spring. I even did some. Then spring came, and I realized that I hadn’t done them consistently enough to have done myself much good. I felt like I’d wasted the winter.

I ended up not pursuing parkour the way I’d planned, mainly because I didn’t want to risk even minor injuries during the run-up to our big Kal-Haven Trail walk, but also because I really didn’t have the base to train seriously.

I want to avoid that this year, so I thought I’d sketch out a plan for building my base for parkour—and as long as I was doing that, I figured I might as well document it here for easy reference.

To help me focus, I’m holding the list to just four things (on top of my usual walking, running, taiji, etc.).

Squatting

My goal here is to get to where I can do a full, deep squat, and then hang out comfortably in that position. I can get down into a deep squat, but to do so I have to curl forward and stretch my arms forward, to get my center of balance over my feet and not topple over backwards. I’m pretty sure this is due to flexibility issues, rather than strength issues.

I came across a pretty good page on diagnosing and addressing squat flexibility issues, which would have me believe that tight calf muscles and tight hip-flexor muscles are likely culprits.

I’m already doing calf stretches, both straight-knee and bent-knee. I’ll try and be a bit more consistent about that.

The suggested exercise for hip flexors is a crescent lunge, which looks pretty good. Based on other stuff I’ve read, I suspect that I also want to work on releasing my psoas, so I’ll include that as well.

me squattingIn addition to all this prep work, I’ll also spend some time squatting with some sort of support or another. I know three ways to do this. First, elevate the heels, so that calf tightness doesn’t limit the squat. Second, just hang onto something (like a door frame or a tree trunk) so that I can avoid toppling backwards. Third, do goblet squats, where the weight of the dumbbell works to shift my center of gravity forward.

I might also try prisoner squats. I won’t be able to go all the way down, but it’ll give me a chance to keep my back nice and straight, and then see how low I can go with a straight back.

Success will be when I can get all the way down with a straight back, and then use my hands to manipulate things that are nearby.

Toe Stretches

Last summer, when I started doing some barefoot walking for the first time in years, I was surprised to discover how much a lack of toe flexibility was limiting me. It interfered with quadrupedal movement in particular, but also all sorts of transitions to and from a standing position while barefoot.

quadrupedI’ve started working on toe flexibility. My main exercise so far is assuming quadruped position, and then—keeping my weight back on the balls of my feet—sinking my knees toward the ground. When I find the spot where my weight shifts forward onto the toes themselves, I ease off.

Along with that, I’m doing other foot mobility exercises: Lifting my toes individually, spreading my toes, relaxing my foot enough that it can conform around objects, etc.

Last summer I did quite a bit of barefoot walking, and was surprised and kind of sad to find that a few decades of wearing shoes seemed to have fused my feet into solid lumps.

Success will be when I can keep my weight back on the balls of my feet and still get into position for things like planks, push-ups, and lunges.

Hanging

Hanging from a bar or a branch is one of the things I got started on last winter, and then got distracted and wasn’t consistent about.

hangingLonger term, I want to be able to do pull-ups, but hanging is the place to start. I had worked up to hanging for 30 seconds last summer, but I did a bit of hanging yesterday and found that about 15 seconds was as long as I could manage. I’m ahead of where I started—a few years ago I wouldn’t have been able to support my weight with my hands; I’d have been afraid to even try, for fear that I’d hurt something. Still, not being able to hang for even 30 seconds is discouraging. (Not to mention life-threatening, if I find myself in an action movie.)

The progression is straightforward: hanging, then negative pull-ups (where you use a step to get up to the top of pull-up position, then lower yourself), then pull-ups. From what I’ve read, once you can do a 10 or 12 negative pull-ups, you can probably do a pull-up. We’ll see.

I don’t have a perfect situation for this: The benches in the fitness room here are too low to get me up to the top of pull-up position. I can probably use one or another of the pieces of playground equipment. I looked yesterday, but the most likely playground had kids playing at it, so I didn’t try.

Being able to do a pull-up is a key capability for various parkour moves, such as wall climbs.

Success will be a single pull-up in good form from a dead hang.

Wall Dip

This is where you put your hands on top of a wall and use them to push yourself up—like a push-up, but with your feet unsupported. I can currently do about one rep of this.

The progression for working up to these is just doing a wall support, where you hold yourself up in the top position.

I don’t know of a good wall for doing this exercise anywhere in Savoy, which seems odd. I wonder if architecture and construction fashions have changed—campus is full of low walls that are prefect for this sort of thing.

wall supportHappily, the edge of the window seat in my study is an adequate support, so there’s a spot to do this that’s literally less than one step away from where I’m sitting as I type this. It’s not a perfect spot, because it’s kind of low, so I have to bend my knees to get my feet off the ground, which means that I can’t use my feet against the wall to help. That’s fine for practice wall supports and wall dips, but it means that I don’t have a good place to transition my practice to more specific parkour skills like wall climbs.

Success will be when I can do a dozen or so wall dips with good form.

So, that’s my winter parkour-prep program. With some consistency, I should come into the spring with enough strength and flexibility to jump right into serious training on parkour-specific moves.

Just for completeness, here’s the article I mentioned at the beginning, with a set of basic exercises for building strength for parkour training. I almost didn’t link to it because I don’t like the title, but it’s really pretty good.