Thursday, December 30, 2010

S&C Coach of The Year 2010

In case there was any question, it's Sal Alosi. Congratulations Sal.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Babies And Bath Water - Isolation Exercises

I had a nice conversation the other day with a good friend about the current anti-isolation trend in "functional" training. He mentioned that he was recently TOLD by a gym member that there was no reason to ever do isolation work - that compound movements were all anyone ever needed. ...sigh... As with many of these things, (like stretching, isometrics, partials, eccentrics, etc) we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, because there really is a precious baby in there.

Isolation exercises are extremely "functional" for the following:

When I was 18, I read (I think it was) an Arthur Jones quote that went something like "You want big arms? Train until you can bench 500, rows with 300, and do dips and chins with 100lbs strapped around your waist, and you'll have 'em!" I took that to heart and cranked out the dips and chins, benches and rows. No matter how much I gained in those exercises, it always seemed like the tank-top guy over there cranking out the curls and triceps extensions had better arm development... Bodybuilders get it. Men's Health guy gets it. Why don't the rest of us?

I shouldn't need to expand on this here - it should be obvious. If a person is suffering from injury, isolation work may be key. As a tool to stress and strengthen specific areas without unnecessarily stressing areas that need rest, what else is there? Yes, squats, pulls, and hill running will strengthen the posterior chain from the Achilles tendon to your iliocostalis, but are they your best options for someone regaining ankle and knee kinesthetic awareness, mobility, and strength? Probably NOT.

*Specialized Training
Consider a powerlifter who has just finished doing uber-tons of squats and pulls. If he needs to do some work for his VMO to maintain proper knee health, should he load up the barbell and crank out some close stance front squats, or would he be better off doing some backwards sled dragging, terminal knee extensions, or [EGADS!] some leg extensions? The correct answer would generally NOT be to add front squats unless this powerlifter has a goal of running himself into the ground with auxiliary lifts. Isolation will give the trainee a chance to bring up specific weaknesses with minimal inroads into recovery.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Shake Weight Trainer Certification

If you're looking for a late Christmas gift for yourself, look no further:

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Looks like Christmas Day will not be a training day for me this year, but Christmas Eve certainly will be. Do you have any special training plans for the holiday season?

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Do Your Bells Swing High? Do Your Bells Swing Low?

So, on my birthday I was doing a kettlebell complex w. the 24kg that I've been doing off and on for a while - kettlebell cleans, jerks, and overhead squats. It's all done continuously without setting the bell down and pyramiding up as high as you'd ever care to. I did 1 clean, 1 jerk, 1 overhead squat, switch hands, 1 clean, 1 jerk, 1 overhead squat, switch hands, 2 cleans, 2 jerks, 2 overhead squats, switch hands, 3 cleans, ... to 8 cleans, 8 jerks, and 8 overhead squats. It was about 15 minutes of huffing and puffing fun.

I was hoping to get to 10 reps, but the garage was absolutely frigid and my baggy sweatpants were causing me all kinds of grief. I guess it's a generational thing, but I don't know how young people can stand to wear oversized shorts, or low riding sweats when training - I CAN'T STAND THEM. The sagging crotch affects how I hike the bell on cleans, swings, or snatches and so, lo and behold, after my birthday workout my lower back was in pain - it's my fault, yes, but I blame the sweats...

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Skwat! T-Shirt Update

I have t-shirts (S, M, L, XL, XXL) - $20 each domestic, $25 each international (shipping included). Please send me an email to check availability and we'll arrange payment through PayPal.

Not to rush anyone or play the "limited availability" game, but after this week I'll take a break from t-shirt sales for a while.

Thanks everybody.

- Boris (

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Birthday Post

The Old Man and The Sea

I have a birthday this week. As I get older, I hope that, like Santiago in The Old Man and The Sea, I learn "many tricks". Not really tricks, but bits of knowledge and wisdom that keep you in the game, keep you grounded, and keep you focused.

Generally, I try to compose complete thoughts rather than throw out aphorisms, but hey, it's my birthday. Hopefully, some of these things will be helpful to someone - I wish I had known some of these things 20 years ago.

In no particular order, the obligatory "things I have learned/reminders to self" post:

1) There are training programs that are enjoyable to do, and training programs that are enjoyable to have done. If you are going to train long-term, you'd better find something enjoyable or, at the very least, something you don't hate.

2) Front-loading your training week is a good way to make sure you get your volume in.

3) Hill sprints are awesome work for... well, A LOT OF THINGS! Walter Payton did a lot of them - need I say more? (hill running at about 2:25)

4) Three really is a magic number. Three weeks is about as long as you really push. Three weeks of doing nothing is about as much as you can allow before your strength and conditioning start to really go down the toilet.

5) No one's entitled - no one.

6) Stretching is a great proprioceptive drill and stress reliever. Most people should be doing it more, not less.

7) Love = Responsibility.  To be responsible; to truly love, you have to be present physically, mentally, and emotionally. There's no such thing as irresponsible love - that's not love, that's immaturity and selfishness. People don't like to hear it, but it's true. Think about it. Choose to be here, right now, over and over again because, good or bad, it's all you got.

8) General a-holishness is one of the first crystal clear signs that I need a break from training. Unfortunately, when I'm in "a-hole mode", I don't listen to anyone including myself.

9) Humans are social beings. The worst thing in the world is to be excluded, or exclude others.

10) Everyone says "Oh, that's just a band-aid. Treating the symptoms won't cure anything" - don't listen to people that say this flippantly. The thing is that symptoms can kill you. Sometimes you have to treat the symptoms first to get to the underlying root causes.

11) Sometimes it's hard to be satisfied with enough, but that's all we really need.

12) I wish I could "eat through a plateau" the way I did when I was younger, but I don't think this is a good long term strength or diet plan...

13) "Recovery doesn't come in a can. Recovery is sleep." (Dan John)

14) Energy drinks are stress in a can.

15) You can't eat a "meal" at Starbucks, and there's no such thing as "gourmet" at a fast-food restaurant.

16) People's driving tends to mellow out with age and experience, so does their training.

17) When my squat was its strongest, I hurt myself slipping on the ice - not falling, mind you, just slipping. My body had lost its "fast gear". Specificity comes at a price. You have to sacrifice balance if you want to push the envelope, but there are very good reasons why sports have seasons - remember that when you want to push "just a few more weeks".

18) Five minutes is enough. Set a timer for five minutes and see how many total sets and reps you can get. It's not a met-con - don't kill yourself, just work steadily. Next time, see if you can increase the volume, or decrease the number of sets. This is called "density training" and it is a boon to the time-challenged.

19) If you travel with weights in the car, especially at highway speeds, please, please, please secure them.

20) Sometimes it's very nice to train in absolute silence. Try it.

21) The best tasting "Get Big Drink" I've ever made consisted of milk, vanilla ice cream, egg substitute, vanilla protein powder, ice, frozen fruit, and maccha thrown into a blender.

22) I've tried pancake mix, oatmeal, chunky peanut butter, brewer's yeast, and dessicated liver tabs in "Get Big Drinks"... I don't recommend them.

23) Chili won't make you popular in elevators, but it's a wonderful "bulk food".

24) Failure is not an option, but mistakes are essential.

25) A competent masseuse - find one, find the money, and find the time if at all possible.

26) My grandfather died of emphysema. Toward the end, getting out of a chair was a met-con workout. Learn to squat properly and then train and maintain your squat as long as you are able.


28) Shoulder carries with a sandbag, farmer's walk, plate curls, and cross-bench pull-overs are great exercises that very few people do.

29) The easiest way to get out of chair is to not sit down in the first place.

30) "In theory, there's no difference between theory and practice: in practice, there is." - Yogi Berra

31) Most of us should be doing more walking.

A vigorous five-mile walk will do more good for an unhappy but otherwise healthy adult than all the medicine and psychology in the world." - Paul Dudley White, M.D.

32) Kids who tell me "I can't gain weight and I eat A TON!" are usually skipping meals (breakfast) and eating very little real food. Most adults who tell me "I can't lose weight and I eat LIKE A BIRD!" are usually drinking diet sodas, skipping meals, snacking, and binging when they finally sit down to a decent meal. Keeping an honest and comprehensive food log for a week or two would be enlightening for them both.

33) Stop asking me "Is it okay if I do...?". You don't need anyone's permission.

34) Most barbells in commercial gyms are crap - slippery chrome with non-existent knurling, sleeves that don't rotate smoothly, and low grade steel that will be whipping around your neck like Medusa's snake-hair as you step out of the racks with more than 300 pounds.

35) Not all goals are complementary. "I want to get BIG, STRONG and CUT." is not one goal, it is three. Being big is complementary to being strong. On the other hand, getting cut is not complementary in any way to getting big, and, unless you are too fat to get your arms around an atlas stone (for example), losing weight won't help you lift big weights.

36) Pull-ups aren't everything, but if you can't do ONE, then some things probably need to be addressed. Relative strength is sorely lacking. I've known All-American distance swimmers who could not do a single pull-up - they were not shy about saying they didn't feel it was relevant. Sometimes I wonder if they ever came to appreciate the relevance of strength as they got slower and slower every year.

37) Stress will ruin your posture, your breathing, and your mobility. We stress over this and that, and we stress about stress. We lose sleep because of stress and drink "stress in a can" to get us through more stress. Stress will destroy your mind and body. Stress can kill you.  Stress becomes a multi-layered smothering blanket if you can't or won't step away from it.

39) Competence begets Confidence begets Commitment. This is the natural order of things. Why would anyone want confidence without competence? That's overconfidence. It is good thing for both trainers and trainees alike to remind ourselves of this progression.

40) In a decade or two, many (most) of the gyms, certifications, and programs that are popular now will no longer exist. Think about that before you invest your time, sweat, and $$.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

On Vomit...

I've worked with a few athletes over the years that have vomited during workouts. Some were caused by late night partying the night before, but often they could be attributed to one or more of the following issues:

*The athlete being pushed too hard, too quickly - the athlete being inadequately conditioned for the given training session
Make no mistake about it - this is a failure on the coach's part and there is nothing good to be gained from pushing a client to the breaking point unless you want to somehow drive home the point that late-night partying or pre-season softness will not be tolerated. Even in those circumstances, I don't agree with or recommend it.

*Poor pre-training eating habits
I think the pre-training meal is largely an individual preference, and what constitutes "proper diet"  can vary largely according to kind of training being undertaken, but there are certainly foods that "sit well" in the stomach, and foods that do not. If athletes are eating heavy foods in the hour immediately prior to intense workouts, that's trouble waiting to happen.

*Poor breathing patterns
Very intense training can cause a trainee's breathing to become spastic. Coupled with a dry mouth and throat, gagging isn't uncommon and if that persists, vomiting isn't far behind. Learning and drilling proper relaxation breathing patterns immediately following such exertions can go a long way toward avoiding "Pukey".

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Skwat! T-Shirts

If anyone would like to get a SKWAT! t-shirt for yourself and/or as a gift, I still have a lot left. I think size L will run out soon however. Shirts are $20 each ($25 each for international orders). If you're interested in one (or two or more), let me know via email ( and I'll get back to you about availability and payment.

Thanks everyone!

EDIT: More L-sized T-shirts are in!!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Funny Look At Westside Barbell

I hope everyone around here knows that I am a Westside Barbell fan and have been for at least 10 years. But, the following video is quite funny - enjoy!

Thank you to Shaf for pointing it out!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Words Of Wisdom - Vincent Van Gogh

"If one is master of one thing and understands one thing well, one has at the same time, insight into and understanding of many things."

- Vincent Van Gogh

Monday, November 22, 2010

Getting Your Stuff Done

Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has a time management matrix in which he breaks down a day's given activities into four categories: important & urgent (quadrant I), important & not urgent (quadrant II), not important & urgent (quadrant III), and not important & not urgent (quadrant IV).

In our daily lives, many of us are so overwhelmed with Quadrant I and III activities, that when we get any "down time" we fill it with mindless Quadrant IV activities. Quadrant II often represents the things most important in our lives and, paradoxically perhaps, the things we figure there will always be time for later, like friends, family, health, education, R&R. The key to effective time management, of course, is spending as much time as possible in Quadrant II. Plugging away at Quadrant II keeps Quadrant I from growing out of control.

Generally, training is a Quadrant II activity. It needs to be a priority, or it becomes one of those things you'll "get to later" but never do.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Holiday Gift Ideas For The Meathead In Your Life

Every year, I make a Christmas list for people looking for training goods for themselves or an ironhead in their life. I try to cover a range of prices and a variety of gifts. All of these get a big thumbs up from me and, for what it's worth, except for the shirts*, I don't get a dime.

* =  (maybe "Athletic Body In Balance" and the slow cooker - I'm supposedly an Amazon affiliate, but I haven't seen a single check yet...)

*$11.95 Expand Your Hands Bands : Ironmind
You could do the same thing by buying a lot of asparagus and using the thick rubber bands, but these are NICE! If you have any hand or wrist issues, or need to balance out your grip work, I highly recommend them.

*$19.95 Of Stones And Strength : Steve Jeck and Peter Martin (book)
This was one of the first books I bought when I became interested in strongman events. It is a fascinating look at "manhood stones" that have challenged warriors and strongmen throughout history. If you've ever watched World Strongest Man events and wanted to know more about the  McGlashen stones ("Atlas Stones"), or the Husafell Stone, or just like rocks, this book is for you.

*$20.00 SKWAT! T-Shirt
I just got an order of shirts in (sizes S, M, L, XL, XXL). If you're interested, send me an email ( to check availability and we'll arrange payment through PayPal.

*$24.95 Never Let Go : Dan John (book)
Dan John is one of a kind. Never Let Go is a collection of articles and essays filled with anecdotes, advice, plans, and reflections. It is a must have for the training veteran. You can find many of his articles at Dave Draper's site if you'd like a preview of his writing.

*$26.30 Hamilton Beach 6-Quart Slow cooker
If your diet needs improvement, then a slow cooker might be one way to get you eating better and eating out less. I make soups, chili, and pot roast more often than my family would probably like, but it has saved us a lot of time and money.

*$29.95 Lats: The Super Muscles : Mark Reifkind (DVD)
I reviewed this DVD in October here. Although many of the drills given in the DVD are kettlebell-centered, the application is far-reaching and, applied properly, will have you pressing, pulling, and swinging more powerfully than ever.

*$58 2" Diameter Vertical Bar from Fat Bastard Barbell Company
Adam "Unbreakable" Glass inspired and recommended this simple training tool to me and I've really enjoyed using it for one-arm deadlifts. I have no delusions of grip strength glory, but it's a fun challenge and maybe, just maybe, if I can get strong enough with it, I'll be able to give the Spear Of Benkei a run for its money.

*$69.95 Movement Gray Cook (book)
If you are a trainer or coach and you have no means of assessing mobility, then you need this book. It is a wonderful and in-depth text covering movement screens, assessments, and corrective exercises. If you are looking for a more basic introduction to movement screens, then Gray Cook's first book, Athletic Body In Balance (Paperback Book) ($19.95) may be better suited to your needs. Both books are excellent.

*$99 Grip & Rip 2.1 Adam T. Glass & Brad Nelson (DVD)
Last April, I reviewed the first version of Grip & Rip 2 here and added further commentary on "The Movement" here. I believe that there is simple genius in Adam and Brad's teachings. If you are an "endless seeker" of routines and training protocols, then this may finally end your search.

*$129.99 Plateau Buster Swing Handle
Another recommendation from Adam Glass - it's a sturdy version of a device that, I think, Dan John called a "Turkish Blaster". Dudes are loading up 300+ pounds on this thing and swinging it! That's absolutely nuts - I'll be getting one soon!

*$179 The Top Squat from
The Top Squat is a wonderful, sturdy device that affixes to a barbell to make squatting less demanding on shoulder girdle flexibility. It's an awesome tool to have if you're someone who can't back squat because of shoulder, elbow, or wrist issues. I reviewed this product in Squat Rx #19 - since reviewing it three years ago, I've had a lot more time to experiment with the Top Squat and I've grown to love it as a change of pace from barbell back and front squats.

Related Posts
Gift Ideas 2008
Gift Ideas 2009

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Do Your Heros Have To Be Heroic?

Back in the day, I was a huge Charles-"I Am NOT A Role Model"-Barkley fan. In a 21st Century context, aside from the occasional fight with some dude in a bar, Sir Charles was seemingly pretty well behaved.

A few years ago, while listening to sports radio program that was pooh-poohing the allegations of spousal abuse against NBA player Jason Kidd, I decided to call in. It will sound unbelievable, but the conversation went something like this:

Radio Host: Do you believe that the general manager should even have an opinion of Jason Kidd's off-the-court actions?

Me: Well, yes. I mean, in my opinion if a manager thinks a player is a bad person who represents his team in a negative light, then they should be able to fire them.

Radio Host: So, do you think Jason Kidd is a bad person?

Me: ... Huh? ...YES!

Radio Host: That's harsh man.

[line disconnects]

Maybe it's just me, but I have a hard time watching a wife-beater play basketball. I just do.

I don't follow televised sports much. The last I heard, quarterback Michael Vick was a suspect in a dog-fighting ring - yeah, I know I'm out of the loop. Just in case you're as behind the times as I am, Vick was convicted and served time in prison. He is now back and dominating the competition in the NFL. The following article, in my opinion, is worth a read if you're a fan of football, or dogs: Dog Owner Can't Forgive Michael Vick

Fair or not, in the modern age, the public figure is under greater scrutiny than ever. And, if you think that scrutiny is too much now, wait 10 or 20 years - it will be even greater as future stars' every Facebook update and tweet on Twitter are searched, dissected, and archived.

What do you think? Do your heros and gurus need to be virtuous? Are the actions of coaches and athletes off of the field something fans should care about?

Saturday, November 13, 2010


So....without any plan or goal to lose weight, I get on the scale last week and realize that I've lost 20 pounds over the past 2-3 months. I'm not bragging about this - like I said, it was not a goal and, on some level, I've always wanted to be big and strong. Losing 20 pounds is not part of any plan that includes getting big or strong. On the other hand, going down a weight class for future competitions was something I've been thinking about doing, and now (assuming I don't gain it all back) it's a done deal without any conscious effort on my part.

How did I accomplish this "amazing feat of weight loss"? By being busy at work, eating inconsistently, and continuing to train regularly. Is this healthy? No. Would I recommend this method of weight-loss to anyone? NO!

BUT, there is something to be learned from my little accidental journey and it is this:

More time on task exercising and working = less time on task sitting on a couch eating.

For many overweight Americans, simply reducing time on task eating may be more than enough to create the caloric deficit necessary to lose weight.

It is absolutely true that you "cannot out-exercise a diet of pizza and donuts" but if, by exercising training volume or frequency, you spend less time eating and more time moving, then you might find yourself having to shop for a smaller size pair of pants...

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Centrality Of Breath (Part IV)

To some extent, in our culture, we associate calm with a certain relaxed dullness, like lying in a hammock on a summer afternoon after a hard day's work. On the other hand, we are often alert but tense, as when we face danger or financial problems. We go back and forth between these two states, relaxed but dull, alert but tense. we associate alertness with a crisis mode.

- Breath by Breath

Science of Breath. A Practical Guide.

...another major breathing type, paradoxical breathing, involves a combination of expanding the chest while simultaneously contracting the abdominal muscles, which pushes the diaphragm up into the chest cavity. Although the chest wall expands, increasing lung volume, the diaphragm simultaneously rises and diminishes these gains. It is immediately obvious that this cannot be an efficient way to breathe, fighting against itself for air. Then why would anyone breathe this way?

Although breathing is partly under voluntary control, as mentioned earlier, it is also regulated by the autonomic nervous system, and any attempt to breathe consciously in a manner which threatens survival (for instance, holding the breath beyond one's capacity) is overrided by this regulatory system. Responses to many emotions are also involuntary. The symptoms of acute anxiety, the "blush" of embarrassment, and a trembling fit of rage are expressed directly by the autonomic nervous system, often bypassing conscious control. We can all identify how we characteristically respond to specific emotions time after time. That we have these reactions in common with the experiences of most other people indicates a common fundamental psychophysiological response.

Paradoxical breathing is seen in conjunction with a sudden shock or surprise. One reflexively gasps when startled, expanding the chest while tensing the abdomen. If a situation which elicits paradoxical breathing occurs frequently, either because of the presence of much stimulation from the environment, or because of an excessive sensitivity to environmental cues, the body will accommodate itself to this mode of functioning, gradually offering less and less resistance to it. Then, after being accustomed to this abnormal pattern, the body risks becoming less specific in its application of this pattern.

Science of Breath. A Practical Guide. (pp. 40-41)

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Stigma Of Stretching

Someday, it will be okay to say "stretching" again without qualifying it as "mobility work"...

Stretching feels good. Stretching is a way to relieve tension and stress. Stretching is a way to safely explore new ranges of motion.

As with anything, you need to start where you can and slowly, progressively add resistance, weight, range of motion, and speed (if these are goals).

Last night's "Stretching WAD"

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Centrality Of Breath (Part III)

Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness

When I was in junior high school, I had a giant of a man for a PE teacher - his name was Mr. Geist and he was married to an English teacher whose name was... Mrs. Geist. He was in his late 50s at the time and he was the gentlest giant you could ever meet. One day, while instructing archery and after calling "bows down", an arrow flew out on the field and impaled his hand as he was walking toward the targets. Looking at us, a little irritated, he pointed at his skewered hand and said clearly and forcefully "Now, THIS is why when I tell you 'bows down", I mean BOWS DOWN!"
There are many other stories to tell, but one of the tidbits he passed on to us stuck with me. I don't remember the context, but in some discussion with students Mr. Geist casually mentioned that a key to relaxation and slowing the heart rate was controlled and prolonged exhalation.

Once when I was in the laboratory in Kyoto,... I observed a curious phenomenon. At the time, I was performing pharmacology exeriments on cats and was monitoring the field potentials of several larger groups of nerve cells throughout the brain. As I looked at all these discharges, I became puzzled. Every few seconds, the firing waxed, then waned. The resulting wave forms were a series of peaks and troughs. Why did they follow a regular rhythm? Why were the rhythmical firings at sites higher in the limbic system synchronous with those of other cell groups down in the brain stem? Further observation provided a simple explanation. Every time the cat breathed in, its nerve cells fired much more. Every time the cat breathed out, these discharges slacked off. Breathing out was quieting the brain. Lesser degrees of this same phenomenon have since been observed in the human amygdala and hippocampus.

...When an awake animal breathes in, many of its amygdala nerve cells discharge. In contrast, when exhaling, only half that number fire. Fewer still fire when the animal enters quiet sleep or REM sleep. Such findings reemphasize in important point cited back in chapter 22. Not only does meditation affect breathing; breathing can go on to influence meditative experience. More specifically, expiration quiets down the firing of the central amygdala.

- Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Centrality Of Breath (Part II)

Breathing and blinking are the only two actions of your autonomic nervous systems that you can bring under conscious control anytime you choose. As such, your breathing is the bridge between your somatic and autonomic nervous system.

Think of your autonomic nervous system as a big, shuddering, shaking machine that has only one control level sticking out from its side. Your breathing is that control lever, the one thing you can reach out and grab. When you control your breathing you control the whole autonomic nervous system. As discussed earlier, the autonomic nervous system has two branches: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. Through proper breathing, you can control your sympathetic nervous system response, the fancy term for fear and anger. As mentioned earlier, uncontrollable fear and anger are the same thing, they are just two different manifestations of the puppy getting out of control. Tactical breathing is a leash on the puppy. The more you practice the breathing technique, the quicker the effects kick in, as a result of powerful classical and operant conditioning mechanisms.

- On Combat, The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace (pg. 329)

Despite the proliferation of all things "tactical" among fitness programs in recent years, I think Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman is allowed... The following is an audio excerpt from "The Bullet Proof Mind" - from about 1:30 in, he discusses "tactical breathing" and then later emphasizes the wisdom of "In Victory, Tighten Your Helmet".

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Centrality Of Breath

I read Zen in the Martial Arts for the first time when I was probably 11 or 12 years old. I don't know what happened to my original copy... probably lost in a move at some point, maybe I sold it or lent it to someone who never returned it. Anyway, I picked up a new copy a couple of years ago and was as impressed re-reading it as I was the first time I opened the cover nearly 30 years ago.

Zen in the Martial Arts October 1972, I was on holiday with my wife, Elke, in Europe. One lovely summer morning we were driving through the wine country of France when I felt an agonizing pain in my abdomen, compounded by a splitting headache. Soon my entire body ached with excruciating pain. Within an hour, I was writing on the seat and intermittently lapsing into unconsciousness. My teeth chattered and my body convulsed with coughing attacks. I had to ask Elke (who, fortunately, was driving) for a tissue so that I could wipe my lips, because I was too weak to pluck one from the box. Elke quickly took the tissue from me, glanced at it, and threw it out the window. I later learned that it was covered with blood.

Elke began driving at a furious pace, taking unpaved roads and driving on sidewalks to gain time. She knew of a university clinic in Freiburg just across the border in Germany, and we could be there within minutes. I drifted in and out of consciousness as if in a dream.

By the time we arrived in Freiburg, pain filled every joint in my body. When Elke found a doctor he came to the car and immediately called for a stretcher. I have only vague memories now of being wheeled into an examining room and given some tests.

I have a clear memory, though, of the doctors telling Elke in German that I was not only vomiting blood but also voiding it. I then heard him ask her if there were any next of kin to be notified, and I knew I must be dying. I panicked. My heart started palpitating, and each heartbeat shook my body. The doctor who was attending me thought I was having a heart attack and had a fibrillator prepared to regulate my heartbeat.

At that moment I thought, "This is absurd. I am sick enough without adding a  heart attack to my problems." With my breathing labored, my heart palpitating , and my body tense, I began forcing myself to regulate my breathing by taking deep belly-breaths (the stomach goes out during inhalation), holding for one, two, or three seconds, and then forcefully expelling all the air. I repeated the process until I settled into a relaxed belly-breathing that required my concentration, inhaling through my nose for four counts and exhaling through my mouth for four breaths. This technique, which I had been taught as a prelude to aikido, is an aspect of Zen practice that makes one oblivious to external impressions. The more I concentrated on my breathing, the more immune I became to the fear that I was dying. Within a few minutes I was in control of myself and my body again.

Before the fibrillator reached my bedside, my heartbeat was normal. "Unglaublich," the doctor said in German. "Incredible."

I lapsed into unconsciousness again and was brought to the clinic's intensive care unit where I remained for five days. Twice during that time my fever reached 106ยบ, and the doctors told Elke they had lost me. Of those moments, I recall only floating in a cocoon of warmth down a narrow tunnel where I would be free of pain. I could hear Elke's voice from a distance pleading with me not to die.

Each time this happened I began to regulate my breathing. Three weeks later I was discharged from the hospital. I had survived a case of Weill's disease, a rare virus which is usually fatal. (I was the first case in Germany in over forty years.) According to the Institute for Tropical Disease, I had contracted it from some foul water in Spain.

Had this incident befallen me a few years earlier, I would have certainly died because the Zen breathing technique was not yet known to me. Since then I have found the technique especially useful in stressful or anxiety-provoking situations when my breathing becomes irregular and fear distorts orderly thought processes, which tend to immobilize both my mind and body.
Breathing and breath control are vital to performance and health. I've touched on it a few times over the years in this blog and plan to add entries on the topic over the next few weeks. You'll find a lot of overlap in the materials, but hopefully discover something new or remember something important.

Related Posts:
Breathing (SquatRx #10)
Breathing (The Central Lessons)
Specificity & Posture
Doing Nothing: An Introduction To Meditation
"Hypoxic" Training

Friday, October 22, 2010

Blogs Of Note IV

I'd like to share three blogs with you today:

Adam "Unbreakable" Glass (formerly known as Adam Glass RKC) keeps a really interesting blog. Many posts document his feats of strength and his grip adventures are truly amazing. His writing is certainly not sensitive, but he has a lot of interesting and thought-provoking things to say.
In some of his latest posts, he gives us his Brain Droppings and Some More Brain Droppings. Do I agree with everything? Of course not - he's an opinionated SOB, but Adam's no-BS straight talk is always refreshing.

Tracy Fober, a physical therapist and S&C coach, keeps a blog over at The Iron Maven. She always has great advice and insight into training. I was fortunate to meet Tracy and her husband after Catherine Imes' workshop a couple of years ago and you'll never meet finer people.
In this post, she touches on The Shoulder and it's training and function. And, in this post, she talks about Building Foundations - both are short and very sweet blog posts.

If you've been here for a while, you know I'm a fan of Dave and Laree Draper. They keep a blog at Iron Online Strength and Conditioning and fill it with great information, occasionally introducing you to products they find worthwhile.
This post links to a new book series by bodybuilding strength legend Bill Pearl called Legends Of The Iron Game. It looks absolutely fantastic and I'll be looking to get a copy for myself for the holidays.

Stop by these three superb blogs and say hi.

- Boris

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Control The Raging Spirit

Tire wrenches might not be what triggers it, but we all have our moments when we're like David/Bruce Banner seeking to control the raging spirit that dwells within us...

Friday, October 15, 2010

Making The Bad Dreams Go Away

On Combat, The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace

...there is one thing you can do that has helped many warriors to make the dreams go away: train. The puppy is worried, so to calm him you teach him a few new tricks or polish the old ones. Train hard so that he feels confident.

I know an officer who is a member of one of our nation's most elite SWAT teams. He goes into harm's way on a daily basis and is confronted by deadly force encounters on a weekly basis. He tells me that every six weeks, like clockwork, his nightmares return. To make them go away, he goes out to the firing range on a Saturday and fires hundreds of rounds. He particularly likes to shoot at steel targets, the kind that produce an audible clank when struck and then drop down. "My weapon turns into a magic wand. Wherever I point it, things fall down, and my nightmares go away."

For some people, the nightmares pass when they are no longer in danger. Others seem to "learn" how to win in their dreams, to "will" themselves to win, even if it means picking up a big rock and smacking their enemy with it, or defeating an endless stream of attackers until their opponents finally give up. However, if the nature of your work is that every day you face combat or the possibility of combat, one possible solution is to train.

The midbrain or the mammalian brain truly is like having a "puppy" inside. The only way to communicate to your puppy is to train him. I have two dogs, a poodle and a German shepherd: my elite, crack security team. I cannot talk to my dogs, and tell them, "All right, I'm going to be gone for a week, so you guys are in charge. You've got the front door, and you've got the back door." It's not like Scooby Doo where they say, "Rr-all right boss!" and go do it. In the real world the only way you can communicate to your dog is to train him. The  same is true with the puppy inside.

The one quality all good police dogs have in common is confidence, verging on cockiness. This is because they have been highly trained and they know that there is nothing the world can throw at them that they cannot handle. Have you ever seen a person that just exudes confidence under stress? You can't fake it, it is a product of training and experience. If you are having performance anxiety dreams, it may mean that the puppy doesn't have that confidence. The only sure way to get it is through training.

From On Combat, The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace (p. 157)

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

This Overhead Squat Video Has A Quarter-Million Views

I like to say "I am not a form nazi", but come on! If you are putting out instructional videos, be able to demonstrate correct form. A free YouTube video, like the one above, is one thing, but if you're charging a chunk of change for a DVD, do it right, take 2 and get your form down before shooting, or get someone else (one of your bazillion clients) to do it for you. [/rant]

If you can look past the cleavage and bad (good?) camera angles, you'll notice
the rounding lumbar, the heels coming off the ground, and dumbbell forward
of the body's center of gravity.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Quantitative vs. Qualitative Change

The Buddha in the Robot

People do not find life worth living unless they experience change, but change in the form of quantitative growth is limited by the fact that resources are finite. Excessive quantitative growth is self-defeating and self-destructive.

...we must realize that if we attempt to satisfy our human desire for change with nothing more than quantitative improvement, we shall be moving in the direction of suffering, because there is a point beyond which quantitative growth is impossible. What we must aim at is qualitative change, which can continue forever.

... If it is simply a matter of producing more of the same product - a quantitative change - you can do that without thinking. But if you are seeking a qualitative change, you must use your head. This is what is called creating. Merely repeating the same process leads to unspeakable sorrow, but creating something new leads to indescribable joy.

- The Buddha in the Robot

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

DVD Review - Lats: The Super Muscles

About two months ago, I posted a short video about improving the overhead squat - somehow I thought my "insight" into external rotation and lat involvement with the exercise was something special. Watching Master RKC Mark Reifkind's video Lats: The Super Muscle, I am once again reminded of the humble "beginner's mind", as I usually am when I listen to great teachers. Rif covers everything I wanted to say in Squat Rx #22 about extension, spiral tension, and so much more.

Rif begins his presentation with a rundown of latissimus dorsi anatomy and function and follows that up with many drills and exercises that engage the lats and encourage strong and healthy movement. It is a solid hour and a half of knowledge that will help you swing better, press more strongly, and improve shoulder health, t-spine mobility, and hip function - and all that from a four letter word for a powerhouse of a muscle.

Honestly, when I heard the title, I thought "Huh? Super Lats? Has Rif gone all bodybuilder on us?" I didn't think there would be a whole lot of new material for me to chew on. I could not have been more wrong! I was not a believer before, but I am now. If you've ever, ever wondered why the lats help your press, this DVD will lay your questions to rest. If Jeff O'Connor's warning that "the ears are shoulder poison" ever had you scratching your head, this DVD will end the itch. If you ever wanted to know why your lats are sore after doing a lot of push-ups, look no further - Rif has the answers.

At $29.95, "Lats" is an absolute bargain. It is available from Dave and Laree Draper's website at

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Blogs Of Note III

The Gubernatrix is a very interesting blog about the strength game told from a lady's perspective - very refreshing in an often-too-testosterone-laden field. Well written and insightful, her latest post is about The Benefits Of Walking - something most Americans need to spend A LOT MORE time doing...

Mark Reifkind's Blog - Master RKC Rif has been at the strength game for a long time and his blog often covers the topics of mobility, powerlifting, and, of course, kettlebells. He'll also will throw out deep thoughts like this one - You Have To Be Ready To Grab It from time to time, which serve to smack you awake from your foolish training practices. His recent DVD, Lats: The Super Muscle is absolutely fantastic - a must-have for hard-style kettlebell enthusiasts (and probably everyone else for that matter). I will be posting a review later this week.

Bret Contreras, "the glute guy", keeps a popular blog with many thought provoking gems. Often, he'll make a post with over 50 links to interesting blogs, articles, and sites! He's passionate about glutes and S&C and it shows in his blog. Here is his latest Good Reads For The Week post.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Ray Bradbury On Training

I'm sure it was never Ray Bradbury's intention to talk about strength training, but much of his message could just as easily apply to an aspiring strength athlete as it does to budding writers. The following passage is from the preface of Ray Bradbury's "Zen In The Art Of Writing". I have changed the words "write" and "writing to "train" and "training" respectively. 

Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You

So, with no further ado - Ray Bradbury on why training is important:
First and foremost, it reminds us that we are alive and that it is gift and a privilege, not a right. We must earn life once it has been awarded to us. Life asks for rewards back because it has favored us with animation.

So while our art cannot, as we wish it could, save us from wars, privation, envy, greed, old age, or death, it can revitalize us amidst it all.

Second, training is survival. Any art, any good work, of course, is that.

Not to train, for many of us, is to die.

We must take arms each and every day, perhaps knowing that the battle cannot be entirely won, but fight we must, if only a gentle bout. The smallest effort to win means, at the end of each day, a sort of victory. Remember the pianist who said that if he did not practice every day he would know, if he did not practice for two days, the critics would know, after three days, his audiences would know.

A variation of this is true for strength trainees. Not that your style, whatever it is, would melt out of shape in those few days. But what would happen is that the world would catch up with and try to sicken you. If you did not train every day, the poisons would accumulate and you would begin to die, or act crazy, or both.

You must stay drunk on training so reality cannot destroy you.

For training allows just the proper recipes of truth, life, reality as you are able to eat, drink, and digest without hyperventilating and flopping like a dead fish in your bed.

I have learned, on my journeys, that if I let a day go by without training, I grow uneasy. Two days and I am in tremor. Three and I suspect lunacy. Four and I might as well be a hog, suffering the flux in a wallow. An hour's training is tonic. I'm on my feet, running circles, and yelling for a clean pair of spats.

- From Zen in the Art of Writing: Releasing the Creative Genius Within You by Ray Bradbury

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

This I Believe

This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women

Good book. If I wrote a chapter for it, it might go something like this...

I believe that the key to long term commitment is having lofty goals and no expectations. People will shake their heads at the notion of "no expectations" and confuse it with "low expectations" - this is not what I'm saying. What I am saying is that expectations, good or bad, are bad, and the inability to untangle expectations from goals in training, often leads to disappointment, overtraining, and injury.

Goals Are Good...

Goals are absolutely necessary for most people to reach their fullest potential. Goals help us plan. Goals keep us disciplined. Goals keep us focused, and goals keep us on the path. Goals keep us from adding the superfluous or injurious "extra". Goals keep us open to options. Goals are all the "why" you need.

... and Expectations Are Bad

Expectations make us greedy. Expectations leave us disappointed. Expectations get us into trouble. Expectations tempt us to leave the path. Expectations get us into trouble. Expectations lead to entitlement. Expectations give us tunnel vision and make us "bend the map". Expectations make us add weight when we shouldn't. Expectations say to us "why not this too?".

Goals, plans, discipline, and routine are all positives when it comes to training on the path to mastery. However, when clouded by expectation, those goals become cruel masters that spur you onward (and downward) and fit you with blinders called "perserverance" that could more aptly be called, at best, rigidity, and, at its worst, addiction or resignation.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Really? I mean, REALLY?

I'm not exactly sure what to say here...

I guess I'll just say it's bad enough for adults to smoke. It's even worse for children...

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Standards Of Performance

"What are you doing with that rake?... No, that is not raking.... What? Different styles of raking? No, there's one style, and then there's bullshit. Guess which one you're doing." - Justin Halpern's Dad
Burpee Gone Bad

I don't know how you can screw up some exercises, but it happens. Deadlifts become one-inch health lifts, military presses start from eyebrow level, burpees become the lazy-man's version of a clapping push-up, and squats become Kegel exercises with a slightly greater range of motion.

If you choose to do a limited range of motion squat, fine - by all means, go for it. But, don't call it a squat, it's a squat variant (maybe even a "quarter-squat"). In your training log, there should be at least some reference to quality of movement if wide variation exists among your sets and repetitions. Documentation becomes important as we walk down the road to mastery because if, for example, you take 5 minutes to do 50 push-ups, downward dogging every fifth repetition, it's fundamentally different than if you bang them out without rest and solid plank position the whole way through - without any note of this in your log, even if your training density and movement quality improve, it's still just "Push-Ups: 50 reps".

I feel compelled to insist that I AM NOT A "FORM NAZI", but there needs to be some kind of standard when it comes to exercise performance, or we all start down that slippery slope toward partner-assisted trampoline-chest presses that many gym goers know as simply "the bench press". 

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The "Value" Meal

Even though we don't want the fries, we get the meal because adding them is only a dime with the "value meal". Where, exactly, is the "value" in that?

There is no value in "more than you need". Just because the 30 oz drink is only a dime more than the 20 ouncer, do you really even want that extra 10 ounces? Are we just getting the larger size because somehow it seems more economical? Are we worried that while we are eating our value meal that disaster might strike and the only thing between us and dying of dehydration is that extra 10 ounces?

No, I don't think I'd like to make the fries a King-size. I'm not quite man enough for that. How about an "Earl" size - do you have that? No? Well, how about a "Duke"? Yes, a "Duke"-size would be nice.

No, I won't take the King-sized drink. I'll stick w. the wussy size and make an extra trip to the fountain for a free refill if I feel that I need another 2 or 300 calories to wash down the thousand I'll be getting with my two cheeseburgers and medium fries...

Monday, September 13, 2010

If It's Worth Doing....

If it's worth doing, it's worth doing well.

Commonsense perhaps. But, over the years, I've approached many gyms and organizations about working with their trainers and coaches so that they can better serve their clientele in the weight room with kettlebells and in the power racks. Not-so-uncommon responses are "Well, we're not training our kids to be weightlifters", or "Our [fitness] clients don't need that level of detail, they just want to get in shape". Sure, they might be just saying that to make me go away (and it works), but when I see what they are doing in their classes and training sessions, it makes me think that they have no desire to learn nor teach skills.

For example, just the other day, I drove by a new area fitness-cardio-boot-camp-body-shaping-transformation-studio-gym. I like seeing them sprout up. I hate seeing them go under (and most do). This particular one is situated in a strip mall with lots of windows, highly visible from the slow passing traffic. Within, a group of at least a dozen participants, each wearing bright red boxing gloves, and each with their own brand-new, free-standing, bright red punching bag, jabbed away while circling in a fast high-stepping jog... Now, I'm no boxing coach, but you don't have to be Cus D'Amato to know that one foot in the air and the other on your tippy-toes is not the best way to ground and deliver a solid punch. I'm not Charile Francis, but jogging around a bag and jabbing can't be positive for speed development either.

But, I suppose technique is secondary if your goal is fitness... or is it?

Cleans before learning the rack? Not a good idea.

Well, what about thrusters? I'm not a fan. Learn the rack.

Let's just assume that our budding Sugar Ray can't hit the bag hard enough to hurt himself with one leg in the air and gloves. What happens when he puts one leg down and takes off the gloves? Will he injure his hand or shoulder? If he has to defend himself and throw a "real punch", will he be able to deliver any power at all?

I don't think that potential injury is the most critical issue, however. Sadly, the client probably knows he can't punch his way out of a paper bag. He's probably hoping that after boot-camp is over, he might be able to. If he makes it through a 10-week program (or two), he's going to realize that while what he's been doing might be good for burning calories, it's good for very little else. And, when the weight comes back (and it does for most), what is he left with but no skills to better himself and fading memories of a more in-shape self?

I mention this from time to time, but it's always worth reviewing:

Competence begets Confidence begets Commitment

Competence precedes confidence. Commitment follows confidence. We can decide that mastery is not for us, but as coaches and trainers, we cannot make that choice for others. It is our duty to foster competence in skills that matter and, ultimately, training self-sufficiency. Does that mean they will not need our coaching? No, because we ALL need coaching and instruction. But, we need the RIGHT coaching and instruction. The right coaching is teaching transferable skills, sport specific skills, life skills, and proper progressions. The right coaching is more than holding a stopwatch and rolling out the dodge-balls...

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Justin Halpern's Dad

It's been a while since I've read a book that made me laugh as hard as this one. In fact, I'd say I laughed as hard reading this as my son did the first time I read him "Captain Underpants".
Sh*t My Dad Says

On Yard Work
"What are you doing with that rake?... No, that is not raking.... What? Different styles of raking? No, there's one style, and then there's bullshit. Guess which one you're doing."

On My Bloody Nose
"What happened? Did somebody punch you in the face?!... The what? The air is dry? Do me a favor and tell people you got punched in the face."

On Choosing One's Occupation
"You have to do something you love.... Bullshit, you clearly have not heard this speech before, because you're working at Mervyn's."

On the Baseball Steroids Scandal
"People are surprised Mark McGwire did steroids? Look at him! He looks like they should have him in a stall on display at the fair with some poor son of a bitch cleaning up his shit."

On How to Tell When a Workout Is Complete
"I just did an hour on the gym machine. I'm sweaty, and I have to shit. Where's my fanny pack? This workout is over."

- From Sh*t My Dad Says

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

":20 on, :10 off x 8 (x2)" - Some People Might Call it "Tabata"...

The other night, I had a pretty good session of kettlebell snatches (video) and topped it off with some wrist work.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 - 1995 publication

One of my favorite books is Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. For those who don't know the story, it is set in the not-so-distant-future; books have been banned and "firemen" are employed to seek out and burn books and the people who keep them. The story's protagonist, the fireman Montag, has lost faith in the righteousness of his profession and has begun saving books that he finds instead of incinerating them - a crime punishable by death.

In this scene, the suspicious fire chief, Beatty, pays an unexpected visit to Montag and his wife, Mildred, who is oblivious to her husband's illegal book collection. Montag is hiding a contraband book beneath a sofa pillow while Beatty recounts to them the history behind their profession of book burning:
Beatty peered at the smoke pattern he had put out on the air. "Picture it. Nineteenth-century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion. Then, in the twentieth century, speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. Condensations. Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending."

"Snap ending," Mildred nodded.

"Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve line dictionary resume. I exaggerate, of course. The dictionaries were for reference. But many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet (you know the title certainly, Montag; it is probably only a faint rumor of a title to you Mrs. Montag) whose sole knowledge, as I say, of Hamlet was a one-page digest  in a book that claimed: now at last you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbors. Do you see? Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there's your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more."

Mildred rose and began to move around the room, picking things up and putting them down. Beatty ignored her and continued.

"Speed up the film, Montag, quick. Click, Pic, Look, Eye, Now, Flick, Here, There, Swift, Pace, Up, Down, In, Out, Why, How, Who, What, Where, Eh? Uh! Bang! Smack! Wallop, Bing, Bong, Boom! Digest-digests, digest-digest-digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! Then, in midair, all vanishes! Whirl man's mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary time-wasting thought!"

Mildred smoothed the bedclothes. Montag felt his heart jump and jump again as she patted his pillow. Right now she was pulling at his shoulder to try to get him to move so she could take the pillow out and fix it nicely and put it back. And perhaps cry out and stare or simply reach down her hand and say, "What's this?" and hold up the hidden book with touching innocence.

"School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?"

"Let me fix your pillow," said Mildred.

"No!" whispered Montag.

"The zipper displaces the button and a man lacks just that much time to think while dressing at dawn, a philosophical hour, and thus a melancholy hour."

Mildred said, "Here."

"Get away," said Montag.

"Life becomes one big pratfall, Montag; everything bang, boff, and wow!"

"Wow," said Mildred, yanking at the pillow.

"For God's sake, let me be!" cried Montag passionately.

Beatty opened his eyes wide.

Mildred's hand had frozen behind the pillow. Her fingers were tracing the book's outline and as the shape became familiar her face looked surprised and then stunned. Her mouth opened to ask a question...

- Fahrenheit 451 - 1995 publication

Sometimes, does it feel like everything is hurried; that everything is "abbreviated"; that there is no enjoyment of the process, but only a mad rush to "get-r-done"? In the fitness and strength and conditioning fields too, it seems that there is no quest for "mastery", only tangible, quantifiable, and hasty results.

"Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted." - Albert Einstein

 Check-out aisles at the local grocery store sell magazines with the latest "Lose 10 Pounds In A Week!" article about a b-list celebrity; wildly popular S&C writers peddle ads disguised as information titled "Gain 50lbs On Your Bench In 4 Weeks!" repeatedly... for the same websites... and the same readers...; everything is reduced to a sound-byte, a Tweet, an abstract, a fast paced "Tabata" session...

I'm not really sure where I'm going with all this to be honest... Maybe what I want to say is that discipline and consistency without mindfulness and patience will run you into an injury-overtraining-laden wall sooner than you'd like. Abbreviated programs are great, but the path to mastery is a long one and abbreviated programs are no short cut.

Maybe I'm just trying to say that Ray Bradbury is a genius.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

True But Useless

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

Find The Bright Spots

In 1990, Jerry Sternin was working for Save The Children, the international organization that helps children in need. He'd been asked to open a new office in Vietnam. The government had invited Save The Children into the country to fight malnutrition. But when Sternin arrived, the welcome was rather chilly. The foreign minister let him know that not everyone in the government appreciated his presence. The minister told Sternin, "You have six months to make a difference.'

Sternin was traveling with his wife and 10-year-old son. None of them spoke Vietnamese. "We were like orphans at the airport when we arrived in Vietnam," he recalled. "We had no idea what we were going to do." Sternin had minimal staff and meager resources.

Sternin had read as much as he could about the malnutrition problem. The conventional wisdom was that malnutrition was the result of an intertwined set of problems: Sanitation was poor. Poverty was nearly universal. Clean water was not readily available. The rural people tented to be ignorant about nutrition.

In Sternin's judgement, all of this analysis was "TBU" - true but useless. "Millions of kids can't wait for those issues to be addresed," he said. If addressing malnutrition required ending poverty and purifying water and building sanitation systems, then it would never happen. Especially in six months, with almost no money to spend.

Sternin had a better idea. He traveled to rural villages and met with groups of local mothers. The mothers divided into teams and went out to weigh and measure every child in their village. They then poured over the results together.

Sternin asked them, "Did you find any very, very poor kids who are bigger and healthier than the typical child?" The women scanning the data, nodded and said, "Co, co, co." (Yes, yes, yes.)

Sternin said, "You mean it's possible today in this village for a very poor family to have a well-nourished child?"

"Co, co, co."

"Then let's go see what they're doing."

- Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard (pp. 27-28)

Sternin found that children who were eating four meals a day with calories spread out (rather than the two meals typical in the area) and eating meals supplemented with shrimps, crabs, and sweet-potato greens (not considered "child food" by most families) were the hardiest. He then implemented communal meal preparation "workshops", led by neighborhood mothers, to dispense the information.

The book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, proposes a three-part framework to create behavioral change:

*"Direct The Rider" - Provide clear direction so that the rational mind ("the rider") will not suffer from "paralysis of analysis", or be immobilized by an inability to choose from a mountain of possible solutions.
For most trainees, having a very explicit plan of action makes change easier. People prefer to be told what to do (weights, sets, reps, exercises, training frequency, calories, menu items, supplements, etc).

*"Motivate The Elephant" - Recruit the emotions ("the elephant") to your cause, so that you aren't constantly fighting a battle you can't win. Photos, food logs and training records, videos, etc. can all help create and sustain emotional commitment to getting stronger and into shape  - and staying that way.

*"Shape The Path" - Alter your surroundings to make success more likely. Buying the smaller size (even though the "value meal" gives you more calories per dollar), having a home gym or a membership to a 24 hour gym nearby, and using smaller dinner plates are all examples of small, seemingly inconsequential things that may add up to big time change over the longer haul.

How often do we get bogged down by the "TBU" (true but useless) conditions that limit our training and ultimately our potential? What can YOU do to make the changes you've been wanting but haven't gotten around to yet?