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On Saturday, November 8, 2014, Bernard Hopkins lost by unanimous decision to Sergey Kovalev, who unified three light-heavyweight titles with his victory.

Hopkins fought at 49 years old, against a 31-year-old. When I Google’d the fight to read more about it this morning, I was dismayed by one of the top links that was displayed: “Bernard Hopkins, 49, Shows His Age in 12-Round Title Bout.”

Are you kidding me?!? Hopkins went the distance, and nobody else had done that with Kovalev, who had not previously gone beyond the 8th round. Before Saturday night, Kovalev was 25-0-1, and 23 of his 25 victories were by knockout! In going the distance, Hopkins gave us a real-life version of the first Rocky vs. Apollo Creed fight – except Rocky wasn’t nearly 20 years older than Creed! Yes, Kovalev dominated the fight, but Hopkins was constantly bobbing and weaving, and showed little, if any, signs of fatigue in my view.

In my book, Hopkins is a winner. He did not show his age on Saturday, he defied it. I hope he fights again after he turns 50 in two months; it would be a nice round milestone number at which to enter the ring one last time.

 

Who Are You, Really?

Although the title of this post was inspired by the Mikky Ekko song of the same name, its content was prompted by a recent piece by Mark Rippetoe on T-Nation entitled CrossFit: The Good, Bad and The Ugly. Don’t worry, I won’t be posting my own thoughts here about the pros and cons of CrossFit – not right now, anyway! 🙂 No, this post is about the question of who – or, perhaps more accurately, what – you perceive yourself to be as it pertains to your approach to fitness.

As Rippetoe explains:

Exercise is physical activity for its own sake, a workout done for the effect it produces today, during the workout or right after you’re through. Training is physical activity done with a longer-term goal in mind, the constituent workouts of which are specifically designed to produce that goal.

“Exercise is fun today. Well, it may not be fun, but you’ve convinced yourself to do it today because you perceive that the effect you produce today is of benefit to you today. You ‘smashed’ or ‘crushed’ or ‘smoked’ that workout… today. Same as the kids in front of the dumbbell rack at the gym catching an arm pump, the workout was about how it made you feel, good or bad, today.

“In contrast, Training is about the process you undertake to generate a specific result later, maybe much later, the workouts of which are merely the constituents of the process. Training may even involve a light day that you perceive to be a waste of time if you only consider today…

“…Different physical tasks require different physical adaptations; running 26.2 miles is obviously a different task than squatting 700 pounds, and the two efforts require completely different physical adaptations. If a program of physical activity is not designed to get you stronger or faster or better conditioned by producing a specific stress to which a specific desirable adaptation can occur, you don’t get to call it training. It is just exercise.”

And here’s the rub, as Rippetoe continues:

“For most people, exercise is perfectly adequate – it’s certainly better than sitting on your ass. For people who perceive themselves as merely housewives, salesmen, or corporate execs, and for most personal training clients… exercise is fine.”

The insinuation, of course, is that training is for those more passionate about their physical condition and athleticism. For those who perceive themselves as something more than just how society sees them in their primary family or career roles, and who have goals they are trying to reach in other endeavors. For those that, when asked “What do you do?”, are just as anxious to talk about their chosen sport as their chosen profession. For those who strive for something beyond mediocrity, beyond the bare minimum of what they “need” to do in order to function in their primary roles, stay healthy, and look good.

I am a husband and a father. I am an executive in a professional services firm. These are indeed my primary and most important responsibilities in life. The only thing I really “need” to accomplish through my fitness routine is to stay slim, toned and healthy. But that is not enough for me. I strive for excellence in all things, including in fitness for its own sake, always looking to transcend the lowest common denominator practices of the mainstream. I am far from successful, but it is the pursuit that is important. Choosing this particular journey means never being content with the status quo.

I perceive myself as something more than a husband, father and business professional. I am a martial artist, a student of Brazilian jiu jitsu. And so I also perceive myself to be an athlete. This may be completely delusional, for I am a rank amateur to be sure, and an aging one on top of that – a “wannabe.” But that’s the crux of the matter: Who do you want to be? I have chosen this pursuit, although there is no requirement that I do so, and I certainly earn no money from it. It is simply an innate desire. So that is just who I am. Really.

It’s Just One Day!!!

With the arrival of Thanksgiving comes that time of year when we start seeing all of the articles and blog posts about how to keep from blowing your diet or nutrition plan during the holidays. While it is certainly important not to go off the rails for the entire four or five week holiday season, the onslaught of advice about how to make wise choices on Thanksgiving Day is overkill. IT’S JUST ONE DAY!!! Eat what you want to eat! One day is not going to do anything to you, unless you are preparing for a competition within the next week. True, one day of overeating can theoretically result in a pound of weight gain that is never lost –  if you never exercise. But in that case you have bigger problems than what you eat on Thanksgiving. If you are disciplined about nutrition and exercise all year, go ahead and enjoy your Thanksgiving feast. I’m not saying to have three pieces of pumpkin pie on top of all the other stuff, but don’t pay too much attention to what you should and shouldn’t eat. Get a good workout in during the morning, then have at that turkey, stuffing and gravy… And get back in the gym Friday morning!

Happy Thanksgiving all!

100 Minutes

It has been awhile since I posted, and this post in particular is more than 10 days past due: On October 1, 2013, Helio Gracie Day, my academy had a 100 minute roll to celebrate Grandmaster Helio’s 100th birthday. It was a memorable night.

100 minutes of rolling is not to be approached lightly (or without some trepidation) by a 40-something with two glass shoulders who had just spent the past 11 hours like most days, seated behind a computer screen. I tried to watch my diet more carefully and get a little extra sleep for several days leading up to the 100 minute roll, and was sure to drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration. I tried to think of it as just another open mat, although I knew it would be more work than that – fewer rests, no hanging out and chit-chatting. Walking through the door and seeing that a couple of the bigger guys – my nemeses – were there, I knew I was in for a long night…

Our professor set two timers, one for 100 minutes and the other for five minute rounds with a one minute break in between each round. He told us we could take a break whenever we needed to.

I took my first round off after about 25 minutes of rolling, and it was hard to believe we were only one-quarter through the session. But that turned out to be the last round I would take off. Yes, there were a few times where I needed more than a minute’s break between rounds, and ended up fighting for less than a full five-minute round, but for the most part I kept rolling.

After an hour, it was difficult to face the reality of still having another 40 minutes to go. At one point, something happened with the five-minute timer, and the round had probably reached nearly 10 minutes before someone realized the timer was not set. The good news was that the long round had taken a nice chunk of time off the clock.

Finally, during a break between rounds, our professor announced that only about 10 minutes remained. On one hand, 10 minutes out of 100 may not sound like much, but on the other hand, it meant yet another two rounds after the exhaustion of 90 minutes of grappling.

The 100-minute bell rang in the middle of the last round – so we kept rolling, finishing out the round and adding another minute or two on top of our 100.  Imagine the joyful sound of that final, round-ending bell…

I don’t have any particularly eloquent words to write about the experience, other than to simply say it was a satisfying feeling of accomplishment to get through it. I can’t say I went balls-out every round, but I don’t think anyone could for that long; volume and intensity are always inversely proportional. I also felt good about the fact that I was not particularly sore the next morning – although I still passed on my morning gym workout!

Over the last couple of years I have become a big fan of Martin Rooney. I have most of his books, subscribe to his newsletter, frequently visit his Training for Warriors website and enjoy his blog posts on T-Nation. My brother-in-law recently forwarded me an older post of Rooney’s co-authored by Bryan Krahn entitled “11 Myths of Warrior Training”. This piece, as well as Rooney’s “Train Like a Man” series of posts on T-Nation, have made me realize that for far too long I have neglected good old-fashioned strength training in favor of metabolic conditioning and circuit training.

I pride myself on not getting sucked into fads, on doing my own thing rather than subscribing to particular programs such as CrossFit, Insanity, P90X, etc. However, I do confess to being influenced by the general trend toward the methodologies inherent in these types of high-intensity, functional training workouts, and I became hooked on hard-core circuits, interval training and other conditioning workouts after being introduced to them when I trained in mixed martial arts a couple of years ago. There is nothing wrong with these training methods, but my problem is that I have relied on them almost exclusively, to the exclusion of any traditional strength training.

When I refer to “strength training” in this context, I am speaking about “maximal strength” as Ross Enamait defines it in his excellent 2006 article, “Strength Training for Fighters.” As described in this piece, there are other strength attributes, many of which can be improved by metabolic circuits. But I have clearly neglected the attribute of maximal strength, which is the foundation for all other types of strength. While this is in no small part due to chronic shoulder problems that prevent me from doing heavy pushing exercises or overhead pressing of any kind – and a deadlift-induced groin strain that left me concerned about a hernia – I have allowed the pendulum to swing too far away from strength training. It is time to swing the pendulum back in the other direction.

BJJ is my primary focus, and I try to make class three times per week. The gym is just cross-training for me, maybe two sessions per week. Those sessions will now be focused on maximal strength training. If I can squeeze in a third gym session, it will be metabolic. If I am preparing for competition, I will shift the mix back toward metabolic conditioning. But the rest of the time, BJJ sparring itself should provide enough conditioning.

It is all about goals. Swimmers, runners, and people focused on general fitness might do fine sticking with circuits. But right now I feel the need to improve maximal strength, and it is strength that can help my BJJ and prevent injury. And I’m not afraid to admit that there’s an element of vanity too – I wouldn’t mind spending some time putting on a little more lean muscle mass.

Stripes and Stars

Last weekend I attended a seminar given by my BJJ professor’s instructor, fifth-degree black belt Professor Ailson “Jucao” Henrique Brites. As is customary, at the end of the seminar students were awarded promotions. I received my first two stripes on my blue belt. I could go on about how I feel I do not deserve them (and I don’t feel I do!), but I realize that is not for me to judge. I put my faith in my instructors and find encouragement in a quote I remember seeing but not sure where: If you feel like you deserve it, then you don’t. If you don’t feel like you deserve it, then you do.

But the real theme of this post is not my stripes, but the stars I saw on the mat that day and draw inspiration from: The new purple belts that set the bar for the next major promotion I aspire to. The newly-minted black belts that attained such a key milestone, one I intend to reach one day (even though I’ll be pushing 55 or 60 by then). The training partners I had never met before yet who each showed the spirit of BJJ brotherhood in their help and support through the techniques taught that day. And most memorably, a practitioner in his early 60s who received a certificate of honor. In presenting the award, his instructor told how he admired his student for competing in every tournament, never missing a class, and being a “tough SOB.”

I went up to this man afterwards, and told him he was an inspiration to me in my own training aspirations, given that I hadn’t really started my BJJ journey until 43 years of age. This guy told me he had started at 45 – and not long after being temporarily paralyzed by a stroke! He suffered a second stroke several years later, and knows that a third could kill him. Yet he not only trains and competes in BJJ but also kickboxing, and fully credits these pursuits with keeping him alive.

I can’t even begin to imagine what this man has been through, but I know enough from a three-minute conversation to say that I admire him and find him to be an inspiration of toughness, discipline, dedication and enthusiasm for life. What an encouraging example of the ability to overcome obstacles, remain active and keep your “edge” well into middle age!

A little over a week ago, I was getting ready to leave on a seven-day cruise with my wife, and was talking with family members about the upcoming trip, including several that had been on the same ship before. The conversation turned to onboard dining options, and I questioned whether there were healthy alternatives, while mentioning my plans to eat reasonably healthy and exercise on the ship. I heard a question I have heard before, many times and in many circumstances: “Can’t you just miss a week?”

While admittedly this question frustrates me (“They just don’t understand!”, I scream in my head), it actually is worth pondering fitness and nutrition strategies for vacation. Most anyone even remotely interested in health, fitness or weight management probably wrestles with this question. Even the most serious fitness enthusiasts and recreational athletes must strike a balance between allowing themselves to have fun and live a little, while not completely derailing their routine or losing the gains they have made.

What are the consequences of suspending regular exercising and healthy eating for a week? Based on past experience, anecdotal evidence, and conventional wisdom, it could be anywhere from one to five pounds, with cruises being notorious for coming in at the higher end of the scale (pun intended). Let’s say it’s just one pound. Now suppose you are achieving an exact balance of calories consumed and expended throughout the rest of the year – but that one pound sticks with you. Take just one vacation every year, and 10 years from now you’re 10 pounds heavier.

Now this may seem like a silly example, and you might say to yourself, “Big deal, how hard is it to lose a pound?” That may be true enough. Weight will normally fluctuate within a greater range than that anyway, and part of your vacation weight gain may be due to water retention, especially if you have eaten salty foods. But gain five pounds or more, and it could take a month to get rid of it. I have a hard enough time just maintaining my weight, even with an exercise regimen that is above average in both frequency and intensity. Creating a caloric deficit for a month is just too much misery to endure in exchange for a week of fun.

Setting aside the numbers of weight gain and loss, I simply prefer to maintain good habits while on vacation in order to avoid the struggle of having to re-adopt those habits when I return. Take a week off from working out, and that first week of workouts when you get back will be not only miserable but probably also less intense and effective – so now you’ve lost two weeks out of your routine. Eat a diet filled with carbs, unhealthy fats and sugars for a week, and it will be tough to get back in the mood for a salad on your first day back at the office. It’s all about inertia. Add into the mix the normal difficulties getting re-motivated at work after a vacation, and it’s just too much to deal with at once. Not to mention the fact that I simply feel better and have more energy – both during the vacation and upon my return – when I have treated my body to good nutrition and exercise.

This is not to say that I won’t have any fun on vacation. There have been vacations when my only exercise was a less-disciplined blend of activities such as kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding; there have even been vacations when I didn’t work out at all for one reason or another. A vacation can be a great time to let injuries heal or allow your body to recover from hard training. But it’s a matter of making choices, finding balance and not letting it all go out the window all at once. Maybe you’ll take in some extra calories, but decide how you want to “spend” those calories: On drinking? On desserts? On carb-laden foods? Pick one, but not every day, and certainly not all three in the same day. The more you exercise, the more flexibility you earn in your diet – remember, it’s all about inputs and outputs.

While a cruise provides adequate opportunity to eat yourself into oblivion, today’s ships also provide plenty of healthy alternatives. Fresh vegetables, salads, fruit, sushi and smoothies are even more easily accessible than they are likely to be in the course of normal routines at home and work. All you need is the willpower to bypass the bad stuff, which is much more widely available. Onboard fitness centers are generally small with little open space, but with a little imagination and flexibility in the time of day you go, you can get a decent workout. And there are typically plenty of classes such as boot camp, spinning and yoga.

On my cruise, which I returned from this weekend, my plan at the beginning was to do four workouts during the course of the week, generally limit carbs and desserts, sample a few less-healthy things but not every day, and apportion my “fun calories” toward enjoying rum drinks or beers by the pool, and wine with dinner at night. I pretty much stuck to this plan, and despite some of my chosen indulgences I can also say I put a lot of fruits, vegetables and fish into my body this week. Two of my four workouts were spinning classes (which have not been part of my routine for a long time), and I took my first-ever yoga class (which I am not even counting as a “workout”).

So how did I do with my weight? Stay tuned… I weighed myself before I left, but am going to let a week go by before I weigh myself again. I just don’t want to become demoralized to see even a pound or two of weight gain, especially because that is within normal fluctuation anyway. I would rather let healthy eating, BJJ and metabolic conditioning have a week to work their magic, and weigh myself next weekend, on a Saturday morning as usual. But at least it won’t be hard to do what needs to be done this week, because I did enough to maintain momentum during the cruise.

So here I am posting for the first time in nearly two months… Ironic that my last post was “Decelerating”! My ensuing “silence” after that post could be interpreted to mean that I decelerated to a complete stop in my training – but that was most certainly not the case. It was simply a matter of being too busy to post because of work and other things, although that same combination of responsibilities and distractions have surely made my workouts less frequent. But it is impossible to keep up a peak pace all year long.

Anyway, as an icebreaker post, here’s a workout I got particular satisfaction out of yesterday:

Warm-up – 2x 3 min rounds jump rope

Circuit – repeated 3x:

– 500m row
– 10 push-ups
– 25 crunches
– 5 reps burpee horizontal box jump and sprint (a new favorite!)

– 16 pull-ups (completed in three sets, limiting rest to 1 min between sets)

– 12 min Sadiv set deadlifts 140 lbs w/ trap bar – completed 60 reps (although I used less than the prescribed 60% of my one rep max, but many more reps)

– 16 pull-ups (completed in four sets)

Up until this past Sunday, I was having a great run: out of the past 32 days, there were only five that I had not either gone to my BJJ academy or to the gym, and not once during that time had I taken two consecutive days off. But after a day of yardwork and landscaping on Saturday, I woke up completely fatigued on Sunday, did a (useless) workout at the gym anyway, did more yardwork, and crashed at 6:30PM. I (thankfully) was already scheduled to skip my Monday morning gym session and my Tuesday night BJJ class because of work commitments, but I also blew off the Tuesday morning gym workout I had been planning as a partial makeup. I think my body was telling me something, and I decided to listen.

I was back at BJJ Wednesday, but it wasn’t one of my better, high-energy nights, and my right shoulder was on fire at the end. There are still a few other nagging injuries as well, but I’ve listened to my body enough already this week.

Thursday is often a day off, but having not worked out today that’s now only one workout in the past four days, and two workouts in the past six – if I can even count Sunday’s pathetic showing.

The recovery time was needed. Age is no excuse not to train intensely, and “overtraining” is an overrated concern. But under-recovery is a more legitimate thing to worry about at 40+.

Still, I was hoping to keep the pace up for a few more weeks, knowing that a vacation/travel-related break is coming up and I can rest then. But with a huge workload at the office these next couple weeks before I leave, it looks like I will have to stop pretending I am a professional athlete until after I return.

Once the momentum stops, it’s hard to get it back. But that’s a topic for another day.

A Microcosm Within A Microcosm

All serious practitioners of BJJ – or any martial art – appreciate the mental, spiritual and philosophical aspects of their chosen endeavor, and the life lessons it provides. As we all know, life on the mats in BJJ is a microcosm of life outside of the academy.

One of my favorite lessons is encapsulated in the following quote, which I have adopted as a motto of sorts: “Control your emotions and react to things that are actually happening, not what you fear is going to happen.” This quote comes from a blog post by John Thompson, which dealt with overcoming the anxiety of having to face an intimidating opponent in sparring.

Thompson’s post focuses on the initial mental preparation for a sparring match. As both an older (45) and smaller (155 lbs) grappler, I am not ashamed to admit to feeling anxiety in facing off with certain training partners that are larger and/or more skilled than me. But I look at each of these sparring rounds as an opportunity to get mentally stronger by confronting fear and controlling anxiety – valuable life skills that one is never beyond needing to develop, regardless of age. The battle to be won is with one’s self, not with his or her sparring partner.

This past week I was reminded by one of the advanced ranks that it is one thing to overcome the initial anxiety of beginning a challenging round of sparring, but quite another to remain calm and relaxed throughout the round. He called attention to my lack of breathing, and to the rigidity and tension in my grips and, really, my whole body, and explained that I needed to relax and feel what was happening. I was holding my breath, squeezing my grips for dear life, wasting energy and just not moving with any fluidity whatsoever. I explained (or, perhaps more accurately, made the excuse) that it was all the result of feeling that something bad could happen at any moment. His response: “Worry about it when it happens.”

That made perfect sense and is a logical extension of the motto I claim to follow but had clearly forgotten once the round began. My rigidity, tension and lack of breathing were signs I was turning Thompson’s quote on its head: I was reacting to what I feared was going to happen. I might have successfully faced my fear in initially squaring off with him in the first place, but that was not enough. I was not relaxed – not effectively controlling my emotions – during the round.

In life, people waste far too much energy worrying. I once heard a priest in a sermon at church talk about how the body’s physiological response to ruminating upon an imagined negative event is no different than its response to an actual negative event. In my sparring round, this type of physical response manifested itself in holding my breath and being tense and rigid, wasting energy and in fact making it more likely that something would go wrong for me.

It is not just the mental preparation for the round, or the overall outcome of the round, that is a microcosm of life. Every single moment in the round is a microcosm in its own right: a call to live only in the present, control your emotions, and avoid reacting out of fear for what may happen. Yes, bad things can and do happen on the mat, and in life. Worry about it when it happens.