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.

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.

 

Ankle dorsiflexion turns out to be useful

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

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

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

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

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

Ankle dorsiflexion while walking uphill
Ankle dorsiflexion while walking uphill

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Movement in 2015

This was the year that Jackie and I finally managed our long-planned  day-hike of the Kal-Haven Trail: 33.4 miles from Kalamazoo to South Haven. It took three years to make the fitness piece and the schedule piece come together close enough to the summer solstice that we could complete the hike in daylight.

That project dominated my movement practice for the year, especially because I was being so careful not to injure myself, out of fear that an otherwise-minor stubbed toe or turned ankle or bruised heel might make the hike impossible, meaning a delay of yet another year.

Another thing that happened is that my taiji teacher asked me to take over teaching his classes. I was already teaching some last year, and since September, I’ve been teaching all of them.

Now at the end of the year, I’ve had another little project: trying to get in 90 minutes of movement every day in December. That started off great: in the first three weeks I only missed 2 days. It rather tapered off in the week of Christmas itself (missed 5 days), but I got back with it this last week to finish the year strong.

I haven’t previously written annual review posts of my movement practice, and it would be pointless to try to create them retroactively. But I did want to trace the key turning points that brought me here. If you’d asked me 8 years ago if I’d be a taiji instructor I’d have dismissed the notion out of hand, and when I’ve tried in the past to remember how I got here, I had trouble remembering. However, I have written plenty of posts on those topics. I’ve used those posts to try to reconstruct my journey from trying to get fit through exercise to simply trying to get plenty of diverse movement.

I’m a bit unsure where to start. I always tried to “get enough exercise,” even before I started thinking through what “enough” would be (and long before I came to think that “exercise” wasn’t the best way to think about it). A few datapoints:

  • I have a running log from 1991, a year in which I lost a good bit of weight and ran enough to be able to complete a 5.5-mile trail race. I hurt my Achilles tendon, and by the time it healed (many months later) I was completely out of shape.
  • I have notes in my Clarion Journal about running in the summer of 2001, and I ran enough in 2003 that some of that fitness carried forward—in 2004 I came into the spring with enough fitness that I was able to complete a 7.1-mile trail race in June.
  • In that same period, I was bicycling a lot—it was something I could do with Jackie, who doesn’t care to run. I found that bicycling to work let me replace my 20-minute commute with a 25-minute bike ride, meaning that I got 50 minutes of aerobic exercise with just an extra 10 minutes per day. Bicycling home was also a great way to decompress at the end of a day at work. In the summer of 2005, Jackie and I spent a couple of months training for, and then rode together, a century ride.

At each of those peaks, I averaged about 100 minutes of exercise per day, which was what I could fit into a week when I had a regular job. (During most of that period, I didn’t tend to count walking as exercise unless I went out for a long hike on trails, an error that I gradually corrected over the next few years.)

I have a rather sad post from April of 2008 in which I lament my failure to take advantage of the extra time I should have had, once I quit working a regular job, because I was spending so much time writing. (I was writing about 5 posts a week for Wise Bread in that period, and also working on a novel.) I resolved to “make exercise–that is, fitness–my number 1 priority.”

In drafting this post, I wrote a long history of my movement practice as documented in my blog here, but I can’t imagine it’s of any interest to anyone but me, so I stuck it off in a text file. Instead, here are the key turning points:

And that brings us up to 2015.

In March I had a practice session with the parkour club at the University. I intended to go back (and still mean to), but haven’t made it yet. This was also around when I first heard about MovNat and natural movement as a thing.

In May I wrote the post that I guess I’ve been groping towards here: Human movement capabilities, talking about my journey from “getting enough exercise” to moving like a wild human.

I expect next year will be a lot like this year. We won’t have a 33.5 mile hike, but I’m sure we’ll have several in the 15–20 mile range. I’ll run. We’ll probably get our bikes out again. I’d like to get back to train with the parkour club again.

Over the winter, I’m planning to work on a few basics.

For the lower body, I want to get to the point where I can comfortably squat—where I can hang out in a squat and do stuff. I want to develop some extra toe flexibility, so I can do the quadrupedal movement thing barefoot.

For the upper body, besides the quadrupedal movement (which turns out to be a really excellent whole-body exercise, as well as being useful), I want to do more hanging. I have no idea how long it will take to get from hanging to pullups, but I’m planning to get it done.

It was interesting to see that my exercise regimen from 2012—the one that prompted me to declare victory—is not actually too different from what I do now. I do five hours of taiji each week, rather than just three. I try to walk 90 minutes every day, rather than 60 minutes just four days a week. I’ve shifted to body-weight exercises instead of weights or machines. (I’ve also gotten a bit lazy about the weights. This winter I’ll step that up.)

Almost a full squat

Along with all the other natural movement stuff I’ve been working on, I’ve been trying to recover the ability to do a full squat—heels down, butt just above the ground. I’ve made enough progress to feel like bragging about it.

This was almost a surprise to me. I’d been practicing with support—hanging onto a door frame or tree trunk, because I’m not quite strong enough and not quite flexible enough to keep my balance without some help. But a few days ago, while out for a run, I paused to retie shoe, and decided to squat to do it, and found that I could very nearly do a full squat—presumably because the running had gotten me warmed up enough to boost my flexibility.

I do want to criticize my form here: my back is way too round. I certainly wouldn’t want to try to load myself up with weights on a bar and try to push it up with my back like this. But I’m not lifting a bar, just my body weight. As a step toward developing the strength, balance, and flexibility to do a full squat, I’m pretty pleased with this.

I captured a little video. It’s kind of slanty, because I did it by leaning my phone against the base of a tree, but I think it accurately captures my current capability.

Squats, dumbbells, and the Winfield Village fitness room

Winfield Village has a little fitness room. From our townhouse it’s very handy—right across the parking lot.

It has an odd selection of equipment. There are perhaps 8 pieces of aerobic equipment—more than half treadmills, but also an elliptical machine and a couple of cycle-type machines. There are a pair of leg machines—leg extension and leg curl. There’s a fancy configurable machine with a pair of weight stacks hooked up to a pair of pulleys with interchangeable handles that can be set at any desired height, so you can adjust it for various kinds of rows, presses, swings, etc. And there’s a huge selection of dumbbells.

After two decades of doing my lifting with machines, I’d already been gradually switching away, so this new facility is nicely in line with what I was already headed towards.

My inclination to change away from machines started when I wanted to start doing squats (instead of doing the leg press machine). Maybe it would be more accurate to say it started when I wanted to be able to squat.

Being able to squat had always seemed like one of those basic capabilities a person ought to have (like being able to stand or walk), but like most westerners—like most people who own chairs—I lacked both the strength and the flexibility to squat properly. When I had to squat down—to look at something on a bottom shelf, let’s say—I could do it, but my heels would come up off the floor and I’d end up squatting with my knees way forward and my weight up on the balls of my feet. (Don’t do this—it’s dangerous for your knees.)

Primarily because of my taiji practice, I’d gained both a lot of control over my body and a lot of insight into how it ought to move, and some months back it occurred to me that I was probably at a point where I could do a proper squat.

I did some preliminary practice squatting, and found that doing it correctly wasn’t hard. (Keeping your heels down on the ground is only possible if you bend at the hips, stick your butt back, and lean your upper body forward. If you keep your head up, the result is a squat that looks just like the pictures of proper squat form.)

I experimented with squatting in the Smith machine at the Fitness Center, and did some squatting with a bar over my shoulders, but ended up deciding that bodyweight squats did the job just fine.

So I’m not really missing the bar or the squat frame. I can imagine wanting to add weight to my squats, but so far I’m happy just adding reps. When that’s not enough, I can add weight with dumbbells.

Since I have all those dumbbells at my disposal, I thought I’d look for some workouts that made use of them, and found an excellent dumbbell workout page over at Art of Manliness.

I’ve started doing something closely modeled on that page’s upper-body workout, with the addition of some qigong exercises from my taiji practice, and some exercises intended to help me work up to being able to do pullups.

I’d not had much success with the assisted pullup machine at the Fitness Center, so I was ready to do something different even if we hadn’t let our membership expire when we decided to move here. The replacement that I’m experimenting with at the moment is negative pullups: I use a bench to climb up to the top of pullup position, then lower myself down to hanging.

As I was writing this post I read a bit about working up to pullups. It looks like before I go all-out with the negatives, I should practice my dead hangs.

I’ll come up with a lower-body workout shortly. It’ll include squats.

With the fitness room right across the parking lot, I’m hoping to get a lot more regular with my lifting. If I succeed, I expect I’ll be posting about it here. If not, I suppose I’ll quietly start posting about something else.