I’ve long struggled to program my training, a task that is difficult because I want to get better at everything. I want to be stronger and faster. I want to have more endurance for running and more endurance for walking (which turn out not to carry over perfectly from one to the other). I want to maintain and deepen my taiji practice and my parkour practice. I want to learn rock climbing and fencing.
This isn’t a new problem for me. As just one example, back in 2013 I was considering programming training not organized by the week but perhaps in 9-day training cycles.
There are at least two problems that I’m trying to address. One is just fitting in training for each capability I want to get better at. The other is how to not break down under that training load (which involves at least fitting in enough recovery time, but other stuff as well).
During the pandemic I’ve done okay, by focusing on exercise. Although I tweak things pretty often, very roughly I’ve organized each week to include:
3 strength training workouts
2 runs (a “long” run and a “fast” run)
1 HIIT workout
2 rest days
That looks pretty good until you do the math and see that it only works for 8-day weeks.
Besides that, note that this excludes my taiji practice (which amounted to more than 5 hours a week back in pre-pandemic days, because besides teaching I was engaging in my own practice). It also excludes my long, slow warmups (which I’ve started calling my “morning exercises,” since I do them pretty much every morning before proceeding with my “workout” for the day).
The way I’ve been making it sort-of work is by doubling up how I think about some of the workouts. A “fast” run with sprint intervals is a HIIT workout, and a HIIT workout with kettlebell swings is a strength-training session.
Still, there’s no hope to make something like this work if I want to add in parkour, rock climbing, and fencing. Likewise, I know from experience that I need a full day to recover from a very long (14-mile or longer) walk, so doing one of those requires devoting two days out of the week to just one training session.
So, I’m left in a quandary. How can I get better at all the things I already do and add in some additional activities as well? (Just before the pandemic I’d started taking an aikido class; I’m sure I’d enjoy finding a local group that plays Ultimate Frisbee….)
Happily for me, Adam Sinicki (aka The Bioneer) has written a book that addresses exactly this issue. The book is Functional Training and Beyond: Building the Ultimate Superfunctional Body and Mind. It starts out talking about “functional training,” and about the history of “getting in shape” i.e. “physical culture.” Then it runs though all the most common training modalities (bodybuilding, powerlifting, kettlebells, crossfit, etc.), before proceeding to talk specifically about how to take the best from each one, and then how to program it all into a workout plan.
His thinking on programming is pretty straightforward: You don’t just add everything together. Rather, you look through all the exercises you might do and pick the ones with the most cross-over benefit relevant to your goals, and then build an exercise program out of those (and you sequence them correctly to maximize your gains in terms of strength, mobility, flexibility, skills acquisition, speed, power, hypertrophy, etc.).
I’m going to spend some time (and some blog posts here) thinking over just how I want to do that.
This year was obviously strange in all sorts of ways, so I figure it’s not so strange that my movement practice got strange.
One thing that seems very strange to me is that I reverted to doing a lot of exercise, after having made a big deal the past few years of scorning exercise in favor of movement. I wrote a whole post on this recently (Exercise, movement, training), so I won’t repeat all that stuff here, except to say that the pandemic response provided me with a lot of opportunities to exercise, while restricting my opportunities to move and to train.
Around the beginning of the year I had a realization that what had held me back from achieving my fitness goals was not (as I had been supposing) a lack of intensity, but rather a lack of consistency. I responded by getting very serious of getting my workouts in, and was pretty pleased about having established a proper workout habit when just a few weeks later the pandemic led to our local fitness room being closed. I found this momentarily daunting.
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it was around this time I saw this hilarious tweet:
The biggest problem with losing access to the fitness room was losing access to the pull-up bar. I looked around for alternatives, found that gymnastic rings were available and affordable, and I ordered a pair.
Easily the best purchase I made last year.
The addition of gymnastic rings made for a big change in my exercise regimen. I use them for three exercises: pull ups, inverted rows, and dips. I had worked pretty hard on pull ups before, but upon getting the rings I redoubled my efforts. As far as inverted rows and dips, I had played around with both, but now I got serious.
I round out my upper-body exercises with push ups.
For lower-body exercises I experimented with a variety of possibilities: squats of various types, kettlebell swings, burpees, lunges, etc.
One milestone was achieving my first pull-up. Another was the first time I did two pull-ups. Later I manged (a couple of times) to do three pull-ups!
I just wrote about how kettlebell swings taught me something about the value of doing lots of reps. Based on that, for my indoor workouts (where it’s not handy to set up my rings), I’ve started doing more exercises for high reps. Not enough data yet to know how that’s going to work, but it seems like a valuable experiment.
For a long time—at least many months, maybe more than a year—I’d had a sore foot that got worse when I ran. I repeatedly cut back or eliminated runs, had my foot get better, and then had it start hurting again as soon as I started running again. This past summer I finally took a full month off from running, which seems to have been what my foot needed.
I’ve very gradually resumed running. For some weeks I kept my runs down around just one a week and just 2–2.5 miles. Then up to a 3–3.5 miles. I did one 4 mile run, which didn’t seem to cause any problems, but then I did a run of nearly 5 miles, which did make my foot sore the next day. I took a break until the pain was completely gone and eased back to 3–3.5 miles, and all seems well.
I’ve just started doing two runs per week, a “long” run (slightly over 3 miles) and a “fast” run (where I hold the distance down under 3 miles, but include a few 10-second sprints around the mid-point of the run). That felt really good the last time I did it. (My running gait seems to improve when I run fast.)
I’ve talked at some length about my adventures in getting a kettlebell during a pandemic, and about my experience with kettlebell swings producing unexpected hypertrophy, so I won’t repeat that here. I’ll just say that cold weather—and especially ice on the patio—have kept me from doing much kettlebell swinging in the second half of December. But literally every day I look out on the patio to see if it is clear of ice, and get out and do some swinging when it seems safe.
I added a jump rope to my exercise equipment a while ago, and back in March and April did enough rope skipping to recover the ability to do it. (That is, I could jump rope for 30 or 40 seconds with zero or one misses.) The problem was that jumping rope hurt my sore foot just like running did. I prefer running, so when I had to set limits on those exercises to protect my feet, I ended up mostly running, as long as the weather was nice.
As the weather turned chilly in the fall, and especially when we started having days when there was an occasional short period adequate weather, but not the sort of reliable block of nice weather that makes me think I can fit in a good long run, I started thinking that an occasional bout of jumping rope might be a great way to squeeze in a quick, intense workout during even quite a brief period of nice weather on an otherwise nasty day.
To make full use of such periods, I paid up for a weighted jump rope. I have to say I’m pretty happy with it. It’s very much the opposite of my old jump rope, which was just a plastic-coated wire—very light and very fast—marketed to martial artists and cross-fit types. Pretty good for getting lighter on your feet, and adequate for a lower-body workout, but not much for the upper body. The weighted jump rope (even the lightest one, at just ¼ lb) definitely turns the jump rope exercise into an upper-body exercise as well.
I haven’t had the weighted jump rope long enough to form a definite opinion about it, but after just a couple of sessions, I’m pretty pleased, and if the weather cooperates, I’m hoping to get multiple HIIT jump rope workouts in over the course of the winter.
My main non-exercise movement is and always has been walking, but I’ve done very little this past year. This was half due to the pandemic, and half due to Jackie having a sore hip that makes it hard for her to walk fast or for long distances. (I’ve been taking Jackie to physical therapy, and she’s getting better. We’ve been doing walks in the woods south of the Arboretum, and that’s going very well.)
With fewer and shorter walks with Jackie, and with walking for transportation almost eliminated by the pandemic, my non-exercise walking has dwindled pretty severely.
Ditto for my non-exercise running.
I have very much had my eye on parkour as the thing I want to get back to this summer. Since I have made great progress on strength training specifically with an eye toward parkour, I’m very hopeful.
I’ve been doing just a bit of training, even without being able to get together with other traceurs.
The most active member of the campus parkour group turns out to have moved to Colorado. I’ve been in touch with him, and he seems to mean to spend at least some time here this summer, so hopefully I can put together some sort of training with him. In the meantime, I ordered one of his t-shirts, so I’ll have something to wear.
Like everything else, the taiji classes I used to teach at the Savoy Rec Center had to be abruptly canceled back in March.
During the spring I led a few group practice sessions via Zoom. They’re better than nothing, and at least keep the group connected.
Once the lock-down restrictions in Illinois eased up a bit in April, my group started meeting in the park, and we continued to meet through the summer. Once the weather turned, I resumed the on-line practice sessions.
Unlike a lot of my students, who don’t feel like they can do the taiji practice without someone to lead them, I can actually do a full practice session entirely on my own. And I occasionally do. But without the group being there, it’s hard to get motivated.
Still, I almost always include some qigong as part of my morning exercises, do the once-a-week group practice session, and occasionally do the full 48-movement form (if only to make sure I don’t forget how to do it).
Looking ahead, of course, is all about the end to the pandemic, something that I have high hopes for. If I can get vaccinated by June, let’s say, then by July maybe I can resume normal activity (while wearing a mask and maintaining social distance, of course, but actually interacting with people other than just Jackie).
Normal would include hiking in the woods, and maybe visiting some natural areas within a few hours drive. (We’ve pretty much completely avoided going anywhere so far that we couldn’t go, hike, and return without having to use a restroom.)
Normal would include practicing parkour with the campus group.
Normal would include resuming teaching taiji in the fall.
I had scheduled a visit to Urbana Boulders to do some wall climbing right when the lockdown started, so that fell by the wayside. I had actually started taking an aikido class when we had to stop because of the pandemic. Either one of those things might happen, once the pandemic ends.
It used to be that I was pretty casual about warming up before exercise. If the weather was nice, I’d go for a 20-minute walk. If the weather was crappy, I’d spend 5 minutes on the treadmill or an exercise bike. I’d do just enough to get my heart rate a little bit elevated, and raise my body temperature a degree or two.
That worked okay for years, but at some point I started having injury problems. I’d hurt my feet when I ran. I’d hurt my wrists when I tried to do pushups. I’d hurt my shoulders when I tried to do pull-ups. Each new injury taught me to warm up that body part a little more carefully.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that it is very much worth the time and effort to do a long, slow warm-up.
I wrote a little while ago about taking some time to check-in with my body and with my exercise venue, but I didn’t talk much about specific warm-up activities. This post is an attempt to capture my current somewhat maximalist warm-up, primarily as a checklist to use myself. (Without one I tend to forget activities, and then only remember them later, when some body part twinges. “Oh, yeah, I forgot to do the shank rotations!”)
Just as a note: If I don’t mention some other rep count, I do most of these for 12 reps. If it’s a bilateral motion, I often do just 6–8 on each side.
Feet and ankles
I used to start with the neck and work my way down, but I’ve switched to do my feet and ankles up front (because it’s there that I’ve had the most persistent injuries), and then go back to the neck. Here’s what I do:
Roll my feet on a ball. I’ve got a hard rubber ball, like kids used to bounce. I just roll each foot on it, back and forth across my foot, then up and down along the length of my foot, trying to find and linger on each of the numerous joints within the foot, to mobilize them.
Walk on the edges of my feet. I walk the length of my house (not very far, about 15 or 20 steps) first on the outside edges of my feet, then the inside edges, then on my heels, and then on the balls of my feet.
Toes and heels. I shift my weight forward toward my toes, and then back toward my heels. Once that’s comfortable, I go ahead and rise up onto the balls of my feet and then balance briefly on my heels.
Calf raises. Finally, I head to the bottom step of our staircase and do some calf raises, pushing up as high as I can on the balls of my feet and then lowering my heels as far as I can for a good Achilles tendon stretch.
I don’t do any of those as strengthening exercises, I do them as range-of-motion exercises. At the end of the warm-up (or the end of the workout) I sometimes come back to the calf raises and do a few sets of one-footed calf raises, which can be intense enough to be a calf-strengthening exercise.
The thing I do not do for my neck is head circles. I tell my taiji students that you should never let your head loll around at the end of your neck. (Exception: If you are the heroine in a romance novel and have fainted into the arms of the bare-chested hero. Then your head can loll around at the end of your neck.)
What I do instead is this, an exercise I call “motivated looking”:
Look down and then up. I look down, as if to see if there’s something on the floor near my feet, and then I look up, as if to see a bird in a tree or something on a high shelf.
Tip my head to the side. I tip my head to the side, as if to look around the edge of a corner, or to read the spine of a book on a shelf. Then I tip my head to the other side.
Look left and then right. Turning just my head, I look as far as I comfortably can to the left, and then to the right. After I do that a few times, I repeat it a few more times, except at the far end of the turn I look down, as if trying to peek into my shirt pocket, or look at the floor just outside first one foot and then the other.
I don’t do any of these as a stretch; I keep within my comfortable range of motion at all times. I also don’t close my eyes; the point here is to actually look in those directions, as if to see what’s there. That’s why I call it motivated looking.
I just do about 4 of these in each direction.
Since the pandemic started I’ve been largely focusing on upper-body strength, mostly exercises with gymnastic rings, which hit the shoulders pretty hard. I have found that spending several minutes just warming up my shoulders helps a lot.
Candy wrapper. I hold my arms up at shoulder level, one palm up and one palm down, and then turn them to reverse which palm is up. After I do a dozen or so of these, I take it a step farther: I rotate the shoulder that’s turning palm-down all the way forward, while turning my head to look down the length of my other arm. I just do 3 or 4 of those on each side.
Open and close the chest. This is one of my qi gong exercises. I’ve embedded a video of some of the us demonstrating it below.
Shoulder circles. With my arms relaxed at my sides, I rotate each shoulder forward a few times and then back a few times. I do the shoulders one at a time (trying to keep the other shoulder completely relaxed), and then I do them together, both forward a few times and then both back a few times.
W Stretch. I lift my hands to about head high and make a W shape with my arms (elbows in, hands out) with my thumbs pointed straight backward. Then I squeeze my shoulder blades together (which draws my hands backwards, in the direction my thumbs are pointed), and then spread my shoulder blades apart (which pushes my hands outward—I emphasize that by straightening my elbows and pushing my hands out). I’ve embedded a video of the Tapp brothers demonstrating this one below.
Elbow drills. On my hands and knees, with my elbows slightly bent, I rotate my arms.
Back, hips, and legs
I like to go straight from elbow drills to rhomboid pushups to squat prep #1, because they all start from about the same position.
Rhomboid pushups. Still on my hands and knees, but now with my elbows straight, I turn my arms so that my elbow pits are as close to forward as I can get them, and then I lower my torso between my shoulders, going as low as I can while keeping my elbows straight. Then I push my torso up. The lowering move brings my shoulder blades together, the rising up move pushes them apart.
Squat prep #1. I start my hip exercises from the end of my rhomboid pushups. If I’m not already on my toes (as well as hands and knees), I fix that. Then I push my hips straight back. This gets me into essentially the same position as a squat. I explore my comfortable range of motion here, paying attention to where my hips start to tuck if I push them back any further. Sometimes I start by getting into an anterior pelvic tilt at the start, and then push back until the tucking brings me into a neutral hip position.
Perfect squat. Standing with my feet hip-width apart and pointed straight forward, I push my hips back and sink toward a squat while keeping my shins vertical. When I reach the point where I can’t get any lower without my knees coming forward, I stop and explore that position just a bit. I just do a couple of these—they’re an informational exercise, so I can perceive what my current physical state is, not an exercise to get better at something.
Regular squat. I shift my feet to a slightly wider stance and turn them out just a little, and then sink down into a deep squat. With this one I let my knees come as far forward as my toes.
Knee rolls. Lying face up with my knees bent and feet on the ground, I twist to one side, letting my knee on that side touch the ground, keeping my shoulder blades on the ground. Then I twist to the other side and touch that knee.
Hip bridge. Still lying face up with my knees bent and feet on the ground, I lift my hips, trying to make a straight line from my knees to my shoulders.
Prone Angels. Lying face down with my arms stretched past my head palm down, I left my lower legs and knees, and my head and chest. Then I bring my arms arms back and turn them palm up as they approach my hips, and then return them to the starting point. (I sometimes do this with water bottles in my hands as weights as a back-strengthening exercise, but for warm-ups I do it empty-handed.)
Hip circles. I stand with my feet about shoulder width apart and move my hips forward, to one side, back, and then to the other side. After a few circles, I reverse the direction. Sometimes I’ll precede that with a more linear prep motion, starting by tucking and then un-tucking my pelvis, and then shifting it to one side and then back again.
Shank rotations. I stand on one foot and left the other leg until my thigh is horizontal. Then I turn my shank to the left and right. This points the foot left and right, but if you focus on that it’s easy to imagine that you’re turning your shank when actually all you’re turning is your ankle. To check for that I usually put my hands on my upper shank, feeling for the front of my tibia just below the knee, so I can detect that I’m actually turning the whole shank and not just the ankle.
Dynamic hamstring stretches. I sit on the ground with my legs spread as wide as comfortable, and then reach toward one foot and then the other. I don’t do this as a static stretch.
Side sit reverses. I sit on the ground with my legs bent to one side, and then reverse which way my legs point. While I’m on each side, I turn to look over each shoulder as far as is comfortable. I do about 4 reps on each side. I’ve embedded a video with the reverses (but not the looking over each shoulder) below.
I usually do my wrist exercises in the middle of my shoulder exercises, typically right after my shoulder circles, but there’s a bunch of them, so I wanted to pull them out into their own section.
Wrist circles. Sometimes I do these with my hands in front of me (ether crossed or not), but usually I plant my wrists over my hips and use the friction with my sides to provide some resistance as I rotate my hands one way and then the other.
Aikido wrist exercises. There are three wrist stretches that I learned in a long-ago Aikido class. They’re kind of hard to describe. Basically, you use your other hand to twist your hand one way, then the other way, then into flexion. Repeat a few times on one side and then the other. As best I can recall, the Aikido exercises didn’t include a stretch into extension, but I throw that in anyway (to get ready for pushups).
Fitting it in
Let me take just a moment to acknowledge that this is insane. On days that I do a full workout (which was running 4–5 days a week over the summer), I do very nearly this entire set of warm-up exercises. (Up to now I’ve often forgotten several, since until now I haven’t had a list to follow.)
This can easily take me 40 minutes, which is a pretty large chunk of the day to dedicate just to warming up.
Even then I’m not done—I go ahead and do “straight-elbow” versions of push-ups, pull-ups, or inverted rows (to match the full version of any of those exercises that are in my plan for the workout).
I also do a subset of this warm-up even on days that I’m not going to exercise.
The reason I do all this is simply that I feel better when I do. It’s not just my workouts that go better when I’ve gotten in a proper warm-up. Everyday activities go better as well—bending over to pick something up off the floor, standing up from having sat down on the floor, getting something down off a high shelf, etc. Everything I do for the rest of the day is easier and more comfortable, once I’ve gotten properly warmed up.
So, there you go. Feel free to take any or all of these activities to include in your own warm-up routines. If there’s one that isn’t clear, let me know—I could tweak the text, take a photo or even make a video, if that would make it clearer.
Kindred spirit. (Although for me it was taiji that started it. So many people stand around with their hips thrust forward and their shoulders internally rotated.)
“If there is a downside to studying MovNat, it’s that I can’t help but watch and analyze people to see how well they move. It amazes me how many people I encounter with a bad back that I end up explaining the hip hinge to, and I seem to talk about glutes a lot these days.”
It’s a little hard for me to settle on a start date for my personal social distancing. The formal stay-at-home order from the governor didn’t go into effect until March 21st, but the last thing I did that was really inconstant with proper distancing was on March 12th when I attended an aikido class (you really can’t remain distant and practice aikido). So, I’m calling it a month-ish of distancing.
I think of myself as semi-retired (because I am still writing and was still teaching my taiji class), but as a practical matter, I’m really actually retired. I’ve been drawing my pension for something like 5 years now, and Jackie has started drawing her social security.
So our financial circumstances as far as income goes are pretty much just as they were. (It may be that I won’t get paid for the last session of teaching taiji, since I only taught two of the planned eight weeks, but the actual dollar amount in question is pretty small.)
I assume my stock investments got crushed in the early reaction to the pandemic and have since recovered some, but to be honest I’ve not paid much attention. I had lightened up on stocks a couple of times in the past couple of years, and am pretty comfortable with my asset allocation. (I actually checked with Wise Bread to see if they wanted me to pitch them an article on “Investing in Plague Time,” but they said they’d completely shut down commissioning articles due to how the pandemic was hitting their income. I’ll recast the article as a blog post and put it up here pretty soon.)
As far as spending goes, we’re spending quite a bit less. We’re still trying to support local businesses—we’ve been buying groceries during geezer hour at Schnucks, and we restocked our liquor cabinet at Friar Tuck’s, taking advantage of their curb-side pickup scheme—but I’ve stuck to my new policy of only buying prepared food or drinks from businesses that provide paid sick time to everyone who might come into contact with my food, and so far I haven’t heard of any local restaurants or bars that do that. (If you know of any, let me know!) The upshot is that 100% of the food we’ve eaten this month has been prepared by Jackie or by me, which means it’s been both delicious and healthy.
I don’t have many pictures of the great dishes that Jackie has cooked—most recently khema made with grass-fed beef and served with chapatis—and it seems that I failed to get a picture of the lingcod seasoned after the fashion of Kerala roadside chicken (garlic, ginger, fennel, garam masala, turmeric) that I fried in coconut oil in my big cast iron skillet. However, here’s a few recent dishes:
Besides all the great food, we’re also enjoying (perhaps a little too much) our daily cocktail hour—often on-line with my brother and our mom. The folks I meet for coffee on Tuesday morning have been keeping things going by doing that on-line as well.
I do my workouts outdoors to the greatest extent possible—runs around the neighborhood, setting the rings up in Winfield Village’s basketball court, jumping rope and swinging the kettlebell in our little patio. Our neighbors all seem to be pretty good about respecting proper distancing practices, so it’s working okay so far.
While I’m on the subject of exercise, I wanted to mention in passing this hilarious tweet:
Just to say that, although getting ripped is perhaps not in the cards, I’m having a great time making the attempt.
Finally, I’m meaning to get back to getting some writing done, and to that end I spent all morning tidying up my desk:
At this moment (a couple of hours later), it is still just about that tidy, and I’ve used it to write this blog post. This afternoon I’ll use it to write a letter to my congressman and senators, urging them to support the post office. And then, I’ll see if I can’t get to work on some fiction.
I was talking to my brother about how I might best serve my students during the emergency, and the topic of on-line classes came up (as it has for everyone who teaches some sort of movement-based activity), and my brother pointed out that I should have been turning my study into a studio suitable for producing and streaming on-line classes.
Sadly, I have not done so. If I were to try to stream classes from here, they’d mostly consist of pictures of the vast amount of clutter in my study, so they’d look like this:
I’ll spare you that for the time being.
But, if the emergency continues, I suppose it’s possible that I’ll get my act together to tidy up my study to the point where it could sort-of be a studio.
Watch this space!
In the meantime, there are a variety of videos of me and other people doing taiji and qi gong at communitytaichi.org (a few recent videos are here). If you want to see videos of me in particular, there are few taken by a couple of my students here.
I was on spring break from teaching taiji when the governor’s “stay at home” order was issued, and my friends and I had already started social distancing on our own. So for the past week I’ve just carried on as I’d been doing the week before.
But now my spring break is over. Two weeks ago, I thought I’d be going back to the Savoy Rec Center tomorrow to teach the last six weeks of the final session before we took our summer break.
I’m sure I’m just a week behind everybody else who teaches—feeling bad for my students, uncertain as to what’s going to happen, wondering what long-term changes will be wrought by the whole thing—but those feelings are nonetheless genuine just because they’re a delayed version of what lots of other people have already had to face.
At least I don’t have the financial concerns of people who make a living teaching. (The little I earn teaching taiji is a small fraction of my annual income, plus I’ve already received most of what would have come in before we went on our summer break anyway. Besides which, they may well pay me for the class that had been started—I get a percentage of what my students pay, and they already paid a month ago. Maybe the Savoy Rec Center will refund the money to my students, but otherwise I expect them to pay me as usual. I’d be happy enough with either scenario.)
Anyway, although it’s purely a mental shift for me, my spring break is over.
I’m about to switch from “not teaching taiji because I’m on break” to “not teaching taiji because there’s a pandemic.”
I’m going to be providing an introduction to Tai Chi at the Tolono Public Library next week. If you’ve any interest in Tai Chi or the class I teach at the Savoy Rec Center, come check it out: February 4th, 2020 9:00 AM.