Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Oldtime Strength: It Wasn't Broke, Why Did We "Fix" It?

People are, in general, creatures of habit. We become attached to that which we habitually do, get comfortable, and dislike/fear the unknown and lack of familiarity that accompanies new things. For the most part, innovation is good. It staves off stagnation, and keeps us constantly improving in the various areas of our lives. Being willing to take that leap into the unknown allows us to discover a new type of food that we didn't know we would LOVE, driving a new brand of car that turns out to be an excellent investment, or even taking a chance on a lady/gentleman who turns out to be your soul mate. The trend for innovation is usually smaller, tighter, faster, more efficient. My iPod is a technical marvel beyond the wildest dreams of consumers in the 1950s. The Fitness industry has also followed this trend. Physical fitness has evolved towards making the workout experience more pleasant, and more accessible to the general public. Our workout experience has become standardized, cookie cutter, and people pleasing. Gyms across the country play the same music, have the same equipment, and are staffed with "personal trainers" prescribing the same workout routines for the same clientelle who sweat and toil on shiny well oiled exercise machinery. The grand majority of gym goers buy a "turn-key" solution for fitness, but don't really OWN the process. There's no real intimacy with the exercise process, they just think if they do X-work, they will receive Y-results.

Sometimes the old ways are better. Take a look at oldtime Physical Culture. Oldtime strongmen were motivated by strength primarily, and their physiques were amazing as a consequence. And that emphasis on functional strength was carried forward into the gym equipment used for the everyday joe. You wouldn't see a strongman performing endless Smith Machine exercises, they needed functional strength that could stand up to real world demands. I know "functional" is an overused buzzword nowadays, but if you can't carry your strength gains from the gym to the outside world, your training isn't "functional."

During a recent vacation to Asheville, North Carolina, I had the pleasure of touring the Biltmore Estate. This amazing mansion displayed immense wealth, even by todays standards, and boasted a gym that was considered "state of the art" at the time. Modern gym-goers would scoff at the small space and archaic equipment, but I guarantee I can get a better workout in that gym if given a chance to use it than most can have in the most well stocked modern gym.

Take a look at the full rack of Indian Clubs of various sizes and weights. Those unfamiliar with Indian Clubs would do well to research Circular Strength Training popularized by Scott Sonnon. This type of training has fallen out of favor since the time this gym was in use, but is fantastic for shoulder mobility, endurance, strength, and general fitness. Also, note the simple rowing machine. This is a fantastic metabolic conditioning tool. Just these two pieces can provide an excellent full body workout.

This shot includes a set of parallel bars with a crash pad to either side for safety. This piece of equipment allows you to work on a variety of movements, including the L-Sit, the Planche, Dips, and depending on athleticism, even handstands! There is also a climbing ladder, which can provide a good workout if one doesn't use their feet. The two showers in the back serve an obvious purpose and thankfully at least showering hasn't fallen out of favor in modern fitness.

In this shot is a rack with a series of globe-style dumbbells and on the floor, a globe-style barbell. Note that in this example it appears that both the dumbbells and barbell are wooden replicas, but the real ones were generally shot-filled and adjustable. Modern plate loaded barbells and dumbbells are more easily adjustable and probably a bit more efficient, but the old globe-style sometimes sported very thick handles, offering a fantastic grip workout that isn't present using modern bars.

If you are interested in this kind of training, here is a series of links that I enjoy:

  • http://www.clubbell.tv/ - Scott Sonnons site on his new modern Indian Club strength training system
  • http://www.oldtimestrongman.com/ - Great site with old strength training books, equipment, and memorabilia on sale. Their blog has excellent information on it that is always thought provoking and inspiring.
  • BodyTribe Fitness - Awesome gym with an oldtime strongman philosophy. My kind of gym, and their site is action-packed with content.
  • Steve Maxwell's Blog - Steve Maxwell is, in my opinion, the quintessential modern physical culturist. I enjoy his blog and his approach to fitness immensely.
What do you all think?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Punch Kettlebell Gym - St. Petersburg, Pt. II

Today I took a trip to the Punch Kettlebell Gym in St. Petersburg, Florida for the second time. I had a blast yet again and was very pleased with the training I received from gym owner Justin Keen.

I've been working hard on the Enter the Kettlebell program, and today was considered a variety day, so when I arrived I asked that we avoid any pullups or doing tons of pressing. I was looking for a metabolic conditioning workout and also to work on some technique as an introduction to the Girevoy Sport. I will post more info on the Girevoy Sport (GS) in a future posting, but for now a quick and dirty definition is that its a competitive kettlebell lifting competition centered around the kettlebell snatch, double kettlebell jerk, and the double kettlebell clean and jerk (long cycle). The accepted format is performing as many reps as possible within 10 minutes, and the bell cannot leave your hand for the duration. I was under the impression that the clean and jerk, and the jerk were performed with 24KG bells, and the Snatch is done with one 32KG bell, but Justin says he believes all three lifts are done with 32 kilo bells, which is scary indeed.

Before getting into the GS training, Justin worked with me on my swing form, put me through a couple sets of figure-eights to hold with an integrated clean and press, and a couple sets of Art of Strength's Ropes Gone Wild. These really take it out of you, but its the good kind of pain, haha. For the Girevoy Sport intro, Justin had me work with a pair of Pro-style 16kg bells and working on timed sets of cleans to get used to the sensation of being under weight for that much time. We were using sets of 1 minute, and it was a lot harder than I thought it would be to maintain a steady rhythm and not succumb to panic breathing.

We moved from double cleans to working on straight Jerks with the 20kg Pro-style bell. We only used one bell at first, and I was able to improve to where I was doing an actual Jerk as opposed to a Push Press. With a few of the modifications that Justin helped me with the movement was 10x easier, and the bell simply flew up as if weightless. We did the same exercise with Jerks for time with the two 16kg, and the difficulty was extreme. Part of it is the panic breathing in my head, and part of it is the conditioning necessary to handle the weight for a full 10 minutes. We were still doing sets of 1 minute, but it was extremely tough. I have a long way to go before I'm ready to tackle the 24kg bells but I'm excited for the journey.

To close out the session I wanted to do two sets of heavy deadlifts, Power to the People style, and I wanted to press the 70 lbs/32kg kettlebell a couple times, since one of the goals of ETK is pressing the bell closest to half your bodyweight, and the 70 lbs bell is 52% of my bodyweight, I just wanted to get that one on the books and behind me. I completed the clean and press (strict press, not jerk) with relative ease, and did it for a few singles. In a bit, I'd like to attempt cleaning and pressing the Bulldog. Thats a nice 88 lbs ;). Here's some photographic proof of the lift...the photos are posted in order moving from left to right, top to bottom.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Primal Pancakes: Breakfast for Dinner

Today I gave a little something a try that I stumbled on while surfing "teh interwebz." Making the transition to the Primal lifestyle is all well and good, but for many of us we have an emotional attachment to certain foods and don't want to give them up entirely. While I believe its perfectly fine to indulge yourself in a "cheat" meal every now and then, that isn't an option available to me during my 30-Day Challenge, and there is also something to be said for a non-Cheat alternative that satisfies the craving.

Enter the Primal Pancake!

  • 2 Organic free-range eggs
  • 1/2 Cup Unsweetened Organic Apple Sauce
  • 1/2 Cup Organic Nut Butter (anything other than Peanut...I used Sunflower)
  • 1/4 tsp Cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp Vanilla Extract
I heated up some coconut oil in a pan over medium-low heat and after mixing and beating together the above mixture, went about making a pancake the way everyone else does. One thing though...the consistancy is not quite the same, I found that they fell apart during flipping if I made the pancake too large, so stick to smaller pancakes. Also, they burn quickly! Don't wait too long before flipping. I made quite a few more pancakes than what ended up making it to my plate, whole and unburnt...however, I'm a bachelor living alone and my cooking skills are not what you would call exemplary.

Alongside the pan with the cakes, I was cooking up some nitrate-free bacon in a second pan with some butter. Once everything was ready, I scattered some blackberries and a SMALL amount of 100% pure maple syrup on the pancakes and had at them.

  • Tasty, but you can really taste the sunflower butter
  • The consistancy was not quite as firm as regular pancakes. It was a bit mushy
  • I regret throwing out the burnt ones, because the more burnt ones were delightfully crispy and didn't taste bad
  • I'm not 100% sure how well these would pass the "Kid Test." I have no children yet besides my dog, but I'm almost certain he'd gobble the whole plate down given half a chance.
  • I"m not really sure I'll be rushing off to make this again in the near future. The total cost was fairly steep when you consider the sheer volume of nut butter! But it was tasty, fun, and its always good to have options.
Now, of course, my kitchen is a COMPLETE disaster. Maybe bachelors shouldn't be allowed to cook unsupervised.

For more on this recipe and for many others, check out the excellent site: www.performancemenu.com

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Good News! You DON"T have to spend HOURS in The Gym!

The story of David and Goliath is the ultimate "Less is More" lesson, and there are many areas in our lives where we'd do well to apply this maxim. Michelangelo's depiction of David in deep contemplation before doing battle with Goliath also serves to illustrate an important concept in my training...imagine how much more worried he would look if he had just spent 2 hours working out before finding out he has to fight a giant?

Many of us put ourselves in this exact predicament several times a week, spending ourselves completely in the gym and then heading out into our regular lives to "recover" in time for the next gym session. If you are spending crazy amounts of time in the gym each week, can you satisfactorily answer the question, "why are you doing it?" I'd hazard a guess that for many it becomes circular...we work out so we can get better at working out and the time in between gym sessions is just recovery.

I was like that once. I knew I wanted to take my fitness and health to the next level, and I thought the answer was spending ever increasing hours at the local Globo Gym. I entered a contest held by a muscle mag in which I followed a cookie-cutter "mass building" program/diet for 3 months, submitting before and after photos holding the relevant month's issue of the magazine to verify the timeline. I can't speak for everyone's goals, and I don't mean to demean bodybuiding if that's your thing, but this approach was not for me! Volume-wise, I was doing an insane number of reps, sets, and exercises, and leaving the gym absolutely blasted. It was a four day a week split, and each gym session required a devotion of roughly 2 hours of my day. That isn't including the time spent sprawled out on my couch moaning about what a "great" workout that just was, haha.

I stuck with it for two months, and was seeing some results...but nothing to write home about. My results were far out of keeping with the amount of effort I was expending, and I realized I was really unhappy. My life had devolved into a cycle of working, rushing to the gym, sleeping, and repeating the cycle. And my workouts were leaving me feeling drained and worn out! What was the point? The goal of exercise and diet is to enhance your life and make it a more fulfilling experience isn't it? We workout so that we have energy, are free from frailty, and like what we see in the mirror. Some of us add goals of strength or athletic performance to these, but what point is all our effort if it doesn't allow us time to enjoy the benefits?

Since adopting a more Primal diet and lifestyle and using kettlebells to keep my workouts short, intense, and mentally engaging, I've spent much less time actually exercising and more time enjoying the results of those workouts. And the results have been better. A relatively minor, stress free adjustment to my eating habits, and a few relatively short intense kettlebell sessions has yielded me more strength, fitness, athleticism, and leanness than all those hours spent pumping iron and running on the treadmill. And after I finish a workout, I feel like roaring and beating my chest, not collapsing in a groaning heap.

I guess the point of this blog post is to keep the goal in mind in all things you do, and to scrutinize the steps you take towards that goal. If you joined the gym in order to get a great beach body...don't forget to go to the beach because you're too busy in the gym. Make sure whatever you are doing is enhancing your life and not dominating it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

So You Want To Be a Soviet Super Soldier? Part II

Two more weeks have passed and I have closed out week 7 in the AOS ETK workbook. I feel great, my strength has been improving steadily and surprisingly enough, I've continued to be able to pull myself up with the additional 30 lbs attached.

Clean and Press

Its amazing to me that I blow past 3 ladders of 3 rungs with no problem en route to finishing 5 ladders. When I first started the program just 3 weeks ago I was struggling on the third ladder, and now it seems extremely easy. Cleaning the bell on my right side continues to be more problematic due to my reduced range of motion in that wrist, but I'm managing. I'm looking forward to Week 8, in which I will begin to add rungs to the ladders, adding an entirely new facet to the pain.


I've continued to do these with a 30 lbs kettlebell attached to a dip belt. I had assumed that at a certain volume I would need to drop the bell and use bodyweight only, but that has proven not to be the case. The final rung of 3 reps is fairly tough each ladder, so it will be interesting to see how I fair on a fourth rung. This portion of the training might be my favorite...there's something very pleasing and downright primal about hauling yourself up with the added weight from the weightbelt. It makes me want to beat my chest like a gorilla...and in the interest of full disclosure, I have from time to time.


These are tough for me, and not so much because of the weight. I'm using a 20kg kettlebell for Snatches and for Swings, and I feel the weight is challenging, but the calluses on my palms just plain hurt after doing Clean and Press. The pain alone forces me to do 5 reps each side twice through before resting, instead of the 10 reps left, 10 reps right as prescribed. I believe this week in lieu of the Heavy Day I will give the SSST a try with the 20kg bell without Cleaning and Pressing beforehand. For those that don't know, the Secret Service Snatch Test is 200 Snatches in 10 minutes with a 24kg (53 lbs) kettlebell. I'm a little smaller than your average girevik at 5'5 and 135 lbs, so I will complete it with the 20kg, and then I WILL complete it with the 24kg afterwards...no excuses. My route there may just be a little longer than others.


What an amazing movement. This program has given me an all new appreciation for the efficiency of this one movement and its immense value. These swing sessions have my heart pounding, my breathing heavy, and my entire posterior chain smoked! Even my grip gets pushed to the limit, and my trapezius muscles feel like they are worked, possibly as stabilizers during the upper portion of the kettlebells arc.

I like to give these sessions my absolute max effort so that I feel like collapsing at the end of the workouts. I can definitely attest to a sharp increase in my ability to handle these long kettlebell swing intervals. They are still tough, but much easier than they once were.

Other notes

Day 10 on my strict no cheat meals Primal Challenge is in the books and it hasn't been as difficult as I imagined. I feel great, and it may be my imagination but I feel as though I'm already leaner than I had been. I will reserve judgement until Day 30 though.

Stay tuned...

Friday, July 10, 2009

Caveman Core Training!

I'm often asked what I do for my "six pack." I find this funny because I personally think I have a Four-and-a-half pack, haha. I also never sought out the six pack holy grail that is so en vogue in pop culture. Any definition in my midsection has come as a consequence of clean eating and hard training, not so much a direct goal. What follows are some ideas for cheap, at home training for the core that will be challenging and will result in strength gains for your core and a good looking midsection granted that your diet is also very clean.

The last statement is VERY important. Abs are made as much in the kitchen as in the gym. Having strong abs, obliques, etc is fantastic, but you won't SEE any difference if they're covered by a layer of fat. Seeing the muscle may not be all that important for everyone, however EVERYONE needs a strong and powerful core. The core (abs, obliques, back) support every other activity you'll do both in the gym, on the field, and out in the world.

The Basics
  • A good workout program should include attention given to the abs, obliques, and lower back
  • Your obliques allow you to bend your trunk to either side as well as twist from side to side
  • Multi-joint, compound exercises exercise your core without being the focus. Strict pushups, heavy deadlifts, barbell squats, etc.
  • I'm not convinced a crunch offers a great enough range of motion to provide gains in the abs
  • I'm not convinced its possible to isolate the "upper" or "lower" abs. It's all one muscle!
The Exercises

Here are a few exercises that can be done with a minimum of equipment in the comfort of your home. Many of these exercises may be new to you, but then again everyone knows the common exercises. Note: backdrop this time around courtesy of my parents house :)

  • L-Sit
Find yourself two stable chairs and hold yourself up with your legs stretched out in front of you, forming an "L" with your body. This is a isometric static hold...you'll want to hold the position for time. A good starting point is breaking it up into as many sets as necessary to reach 60 seconds.

  • L-Pullup
When you feel strong enough in the L-Sit, you can up the complexity of the exercise by combining it with the pullup. Hang from a pullup bar as normal, raise your legs up into the L position, and then simply pull yourself up and lower yourself as usual while maintaining the L position. Tougher than it sounds! Do this for 3 quality sets, or 2 reps short of failure.

  • Band Punches
This is a fun one for the obliques, and about as sport specific as you can get. Grab a sturdy workout band (I got mine from ihpcombat.com) and throw a technically sound straight punch with an emphasis on trunk rotation. Other punches can be thrown as long as they involve sufficient trunk rotation (probably not jabs for instance).

  • Superman/Shaolin Pushup
This one goes by various names, but in any event its a good test of core strength. Lay flat on your belly with the balls of your feet touching the ground and your arms outstretched in front of you and your palms flat on the floor. Other than the balls of your feet, this should resemble what Superman looks like while flying...and if you are good at this movement you can share in his bulletproof body. From the lying down position press yourself up so that the only things touching the ground are your palms and your feet. You will feel your core activating to help you maintain this position.

If this movement is too hard for you, bring your arms in closer to your body so that you rest on your forearms in the bottom position of the movement. Do not bring your arms directly below your shoulders, because thats a normal pushup. The movement has more of a tricep extension type of action in the arms than the push in a pushup or benchpress.

Note in this picture how the position requires full body tension. Every muscle in the body must be tense to maintain strength. Read Pavel Tsatsouline's Naked Warrior and Power to the People for more info on total body tension.

Program Ideas

For a quick, effective program, you could do the following in circuit fashion. Do one exercise after the other with no rest, and repeat the entire sequence 3-5x with 1 min rest between rounds

Routine 1
L-Sit 30 seconds
Band Punches 10-15 reps
V-Ups (consult Youtube for this one) 10 reps

Routine 2
Superman Pushups 10 reps
L-Pullups for a Quality Set (your pulling strength will limit you here)
Band Punches 10-15 reps

I recommend checking out Pavel's book "Bullet-Proof Abs" for info on the Janda Situp. Pavel goes into detail on this fantastic movement that deactivates the hip flexors and allows you to concentrate solely on your core. I won't go into it here because the book is a real treat.

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Caveman Experiment: A 30-Day Challenge

Today marks the first day of a 30-day experiment in Primal/Paleo eating and lifestyle. I already maintain a very strict diet and exercise regimen, but I will be the first to admit I cut loose a bit on weekends. I roughly stick to the 80/20 principal and strive for 80% compliance. For me that 20% translates to 3-5 cheat meals in which I pay NO attention whatsoever to what I'm eating.

I feel zero shame in these cheat meals because I feel it's good for my mental health to kick back with friends and to eat whatever I want. My lifestyle allows me to cheat to a certain extent because these meals average out with my usual diet resulting in no real difference in body composition, health, etc...I THINK. Hence the experiment. How much of a difference is that 20% making? My supposition is that the law of diminishing returns takes effect, and as you get closer and closer to 100% diet compliance your perceptible improvements become smaller and smaller.
However, there is a chance that my cheat meals have a more deleterious effect than I believe right now. What if my cheat meals are throwing off my bodies ability to cleanly switch to a preference for fat-burning for fuel versus carb-burning? We'll see 30 days from today.

The Rules
  1. Meals will consist of mainly meat, fruit, vegetables, and nuts
  2. I will allow myself dairy products in moderation, all from full-fat sources
  3. I will implement Intermittent Fasting in a randomized/unplanned manner or in order to avoid a cheat meal when no alternative is available
  4. The aim will be organic, all natural sources, however as a concession to modern day life this will not be an absolute rule. No non-Paleo food types, though.
  5. Exercise-wise, I will continue working on the Enter The Kettlebell Rite of Passage
  6. I will make sure to take at least 30 to 45 minutes to walk at a steady pace each day
  7. I will make sure to get at least 7 hours of sleep each night.
Current Stats
Weight: 138 lbs
Height: 5'5 (yeah this isn't changing...but there's always hope!)
Before Pic: I've littered this blog with shirtless pics of myself, no need for even one more, haha. I will post an "After" pic in 30.

The inspiration for the 30 Day Challenge, and most of the info on the diet was sourced from Mark Sisson's work. Please visit his fantastic site at www.marksdailyapple.com for more info!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Variety Day Revisited

Prior to today, I've been using a scattershot approach to Variety Day. Basically whatever struck my fancy was what I would do! While this keeps things very interesting and indulges my curiosity and short attention span, the lack of consistency doesn't lend itself very well to measurable progress.

I thought about what ETK provides me, and I thought about what might be good to add. My approach is not to clutter things with too many extra exercises, but to take advantage of variety days to work on movements that I am not very strong in. I settled on including the two exercises featured in Pavel's excellent book: The Naked Warrior.

I have always struggled with the One Arm Pushup and the Pistol. Coincidentally, ETK does not include any motions that directly target the Pectoral or Quadricep muscles, so it fits in nicely. In the FAQ section of Pavel's Enter The Kettlebell book, Pavel suggests Greasing The Groove (more on this in The Naked Warrior by Pavel Tsatsouline) with Pistols but to SKIP One Arm Pushups. I am assuming this is because the overall volume of GTG would overstress the upper body what with all the pressing one does in ETK. Instead of GTG, I decided to do straight sets with both exercises. I also added in Janda Situps and will perform Turkish Getups in their stead during my NEXT variety day.

I feel as if ETK and Naked Warrior go together very well. The name of the game is STRENGTH.

Results from first try:

  • Currently performing pistols down to a position where my thighs are parallel with the ground. My hamstring flexibility doesn't allow me to lower. Next time I may perform them on a low step in order to reach a greater range of motion while my flexibility catches up.
  • One Arm Pushups are tough but doable. Once I reach a certain comfort level and volume, I will switch to one of the MANY challenging variations Pavel provides.

The numbers:
  1. 3 x 5 reps Pistol (partial ROM)
  2. 3 x 5 reps OAP (Nose touches floor on each rep)
  3. 5 x 5 Janda Situp with hands in Boxer position
I plan to increase sets over time until I am doing 5 sets or more of the Pistols/OAP. Next session w/ the Jandas I will extend my arms overhead to increase the difficulty.

Below I have included the now ubiquitous shirtless bathroom self-pic. Readers of this blog please believe me, I DO own shirts. Problem is, at 5'5 and 135 lbs, when I wear shirts I just look scrawny...and then why would anyone care how I'm working out, Haha.