Category: Fitness & Conditioning


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.

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.

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.

I have built some solid momentum over the last couple weeks. After missing a full week of BJJ due to various work and personal commitments (but still hitting the gym a few mornings that week), I was able to go to four classes the week I returned, and five (including a private lesson this morning) the next. With a couple of visits to the gym thrown in the mix, I have had six workouts in each of the past two weeks and, looking back a little further, have actually worked out 15 of the last 18 days. (Note – I generally don’t count a BJJ class or private lesson as a “workout” if it is mostly technical without much sparring; if I throw this morning’s technical private back into the mix, I have actually done “something” workout and/or BJJ related for 16 of the past 18 days).

I know I won’t always be able to keep up this pace. Work, family and other personal/social commitments make it impractical. As much as I advocate “pushing the edge,” it is difficult to sustain such a regimen when it is a part-time endeavor, and sometimes the stress of trying to pack so much into a week can be counterproductive. I also need to be cognizant of the need for recovery time. “Over-training” is a misnomer; unless you are a professional athlete or an Olympian, chances are you are NOT doing enough to over-train. Even 40+ exercise enthusiasts like me can push themselves as hard as their younger counterparts. But “under-recovery” is a more appropriate term for a very real outcome. One thing older athletes do need is more recovery time.

I have been nursing a couple of minor injuries of late, in addition to my perpetual glass shoulders: jammed finger, hyperextended elbow, strained groin. Although it is hard to willingly give up a workout or BJJ class, the decision should always be compared to the longer absence that could result from injuries that become significant because they were not given a chance to heal. All of my current ailments (except my perpetual glass shoulders) seem to be enjoying some improvement, so I’m going to try to keep up the pace. My schedule during the upcoming week won’t be quite as flexible as the last two, but I should still be able to do something most days. Starting the week off with a Monday morning workout is the hardest part, but for me it’s one of the keys to keeping the momentum going.

Just 2.5 pounds shy of a 300 lb deadlift. Not an impressive amount of weight in absolute terms, but it has been a personal target since I started deadlifting – which is only about a year ago, despite years and years of working out prior to that point. 300 lbs wouldn’t be bad considering my bodyweight (just under 155 lbs), although I really need to get to 310 to hit the 2x bodyweight benchmark. In the interest of full disclosure, this is with a trap bar – I moved to this from the straight bar a couple of months ago after a bad shin injury (resulting from box jumps gone wrong, but that’s a blog post for another day). But I have found this to be a safer way of deadlifting anyway, particularly for a guy my age that is not trying to be a competitive power lifter and does not want to be sidelined from BJJ because of a lower back injury. Ironically, I may actually be over 300 lbs already: my calculation of 297.5 lbs conservatively assumes that the trap bar is 45 pounds, although the gym owner claims it is 50; if he’s right, then I’m already over 300. (In case you’re wondering about the odd poundage, it just happens to be the conversion of kilogram-denominated plates loaded onto the bar.)

As for today’s workout…

Recently I’ve been adhering to a couple of adages I picked up on T-Nation. One is “the warmup is the workout,” and the other is “if it’s important, do it every day; if it’s not important, don’t do it at all.” (I wish I could locate the specific post/article on T-Nation where I first saw this, but I can’t. However, at least a portion of the second one is mentioned here.)

My important, every day (well, not actually every day, but every workout) are: pull-ups; kettlebell swings; pushups OR dumbell bench presses; and single-arm landmine 45-degree shoulder presses. The latter two pushing exercises are done with light weight as part of my self-prescribed shoulder rehabilitation process.

So finally, today’s workout:

– Jump rope and dynamic stretching

– 3 sets of single-arm landmine 45-degree shoulder presses (weight too embarrassing to mention – see above!)

– 3 sets of dumbell bench presses (weight too embarrassing to mention – see above!)

– 3 sets of pullups (10, 8, 5)

– 3 sets of kettlebell swings (45 lb)

– Deadlifts: 5 @ 133 lbs, 6 @ 199 lbs, 3 @ 243 lbs, 1 @ 288 lbs, and 1 @ 297.5 lbs