Category Archives: 2-Exercise

Conquering Conditioning – How to Use the Pool to Improve Your Training

Too hot to run sprints…get in the pool!

Last week’s Straight to the Bar twitterchat on conditioning, sparked a great conversation.  Rob DeCillis of Combat Trainer hosted and the ideas and information were flowing.

Photo by: jurvetson

The conversation got me thinking…with the importance of breath control and conditioning for MMA and boxing, why don’t we hear more about fighters using the pool as part of their training.

I tossed a few ideas out and there was definitely interest in the topic.  So, as promised, I’m following up with some more ideas about conquering conditioning in the pool.

Swimming alone will do wonders for your breathing and cardiovascular conditioning.  But, if you get bored easily and find following a black line tedious, then here are 7 ideas that will hold your interest, challenge your cardiovascular conditioning, and teach you to better control your breathing.

Swimming Underwater

Nothing teaches you to measure your breathing and stay focused like swimming underwater (watch how relaxed Kevin Busscher is in the video).  Swimming under water, teaches you to take deeper fuller breaths, to measure your exhalation, and to become familiar with functioning without panicking in the absence of oxygen.

It’s also very easy to measure improvement.  Keep in mind, you have to be ever more careful as you improve.  With greater time and distance underwater, you will want to have a spotter and/or let the lifeguard know what you are up to.

Safety fact: underwater swimmer’s can drop into unconsciousness, but appear to continue swimming, as their arms and legs continue to rhythmically pull and kick.

Sprints With Bodyweight Exercises

Pick your swim distance (25 yards or 50 meters).  Pick a stroke.  Pick a body weight exercise and number of repetitions.  Sprint to the end of the pool (or to the end of the pool and back).  Quickly and carefully get out of the pool and up on the deck.  Complete your body weight exercises.  Get back into the pool, sprint, repeat.  Remember, pool decks are slippery.  You want to pick bodyweight exercises that are stable.  This is not the time for burpees, handstand push-ups, or pistols.

Let’s run through a few examples:

(25 yard freestyle sprint / 25 push-ups) x 4 = 1 set

(25 yard freestyle sprint / 25 push-ups / 25 yard freestyle sprint / 50 flutter kicks) x 2 = 1 set

(25 yard butterfly sprint / 25 push-ups / 25 yard backstroke sprint / 25 body weight squats / 25 yard breaststroke sprint /50 flutter kicks / 25 yard freestyle sprint / chair dips) = 1 set

You get the idea…lots of possible combinations.

Add Some Resistance

Put on a sweat shirt, get in the pool, now swim.  Not easy.  Once you get good at swimming with the sweat shirt, add sweat pants.  Need some more resistance, put on your favorite pair of Chuckie T’s and do it all over again.  The sneakers add weight and decrease the efficiency of your kicking.  This is an old school workout that never goes out of style.

Fun With Dive Bricks

A standard dive brick weighs 10 pounds.  The easiest way to work with one is to swim across the pool while holding the brick with both hands.  At first, you will need to keep the brick close to your body.  Eventually you will be able to hold it out in front, while you kick across the pool.  Doing this works your core and taxes your cardiovascular system.

Individual Relays

For these relays, rather than switching swimmers, switch to a different piece of gear with each sprint.  I like to use a kick board, a pull buoy, and hand paddles.  Get in the pool.  Leave your hand paddles behind.  Use the kick board to carry the pull buoy to the other end of the pool.  Once you get there, put the kick board on the deck, grab the pull buoy and sprint back.  When you touch the wall, swap the pull buoy for the hand paddles.  Drop off the hand paddles and freestyle sprint back…grab the pull buoy…keep cycling through.

Drown Proofing

This is an exercise made famous by the US Navy SEALs.  It’s very easy to explain.  Head to the deep end of the pool.   Keep your hands behind your back.  Exhale and drop to the bottom.  Kick off the bottom of the pool.  As you break through the water’s surface, take a full deep breath.  Sink back to the bottom, by controlling your exhalation.  Kick off the bottom.  Repeat.  If you get a good rhythm going, you can do this exercise for extended periods of time, longer than you can tread water…hence the name.

The Dreaded Water Bottle

Last, but not least, the dreaded water bottle.  Take an empty 5 gallon water bottle to the deep end of the pool.  Sink it.  Swim down to the bottle, lift it above your head, kick off the bottom of the pool, then hold the bottle above your head and in the air until all of the the water in the bottle drains out.

If you are like me, that is to say, without a massive upper body or particularly strong legs, then technique is your friend.  I follow a three step approach for solving this puzzle.  In the early stage, while the bottle is mostly full, kick to the top, hold the bottle above the surface, drain some water, then use the weight of the bottle, to drive you back to the bottom.  Rebound off the bottom of the pool, surface, and let some more water out.

The middle stage is the toughest.  The bottle is 1/3 to 1/2 empty.  It is no longer negatively buoyant.  So, you have to tread water with the bottle above your head, but the weight from the bottle, keeps your face beneath the surface.  Remain calm, as you kick furiously and your lungs burn, water will slowly drain from the bottle and you will start to rise.

If you don’t lose your focus, you can initiate the third phase by rotating the bottle.  As you rotate the bottle, the water will start to circulate.  The swirling action increases the rate that water drains from the bottle (or, maybe it just gives you something other than your lungs to focus on).  As the water drains and the bottle lightens, you can switch it to one hand, relax a little bit and enjoy the oxygen you are now able to pull into your lungs.  This is a great exercise at the end of a workout, as it is both a mental and physical challenge.

Time to Hit the Local Pool

There you have it, seven fun ways to work on your tan and your conditioning at the same time.



The Past, Present, and Future of Interval Training

Sleep Your Way To Better Physical and Mental Performance

DIY Fitness Gear – Sandbag 101

Sleep Your Way To Better Physical and Mental Performance

Photo by: Thomas Hawk

If you don’t get enough sleep, personal performance suffers.  It’s that simple.  Oh, and you probably don’t get enough sleep.  According to the Newsweek Article, The Surprising Toll of Sleep Deprivation, adults need seven to nine hours of sleep each night to feel fully rested and function at their best.

Most of us aren’t getting that much sleep.  The cumulative effects of shorting ourselves on sleep, even if it is just a little each night, include a steady decline in cognitive abilities and reaction time…not likely to help you think creatively at work or perform well athletically.  Long term, short sleep duration can unbalance hormones and lead to negative long term health effects.

Ultimately, quality sleep is central to your quality of life…so, what are some strategies for getting a good night’s sleep.  The Zen to Fitness post Switch Off And Get Some Sleep discusses the pitfalls of modern distractions and how they keep us from getting to bed.  This post also provides strategies for establishing a more regular sleep pattern.

If you do not prefer sleeping for 7 to 9 consecutive hours or your work and commuting schedule do not allow for it, then you should review the Straight to the Bar article Biphasic Sleep: 30 Day Summary.  Scott Bird provides a thorough review of his experience adopting this sleep routine, which focuses on ninety minute sleep cycles and breaks each day’s sleep into two intervals.  Scott provides a thorough report and concludes that overall he loves this approach to sleep.

One last thought on getting a good night’s sleep comes from Mike Mahler.  Mike applies magnesium transdermally (as an oil) and takes 5mg of melatonin before going to bed.  As discussed previously in the post Consult Your Biological Clock to Optimize the Effectiveness of Vitamin and Mineral Supplements, magnesium and zinc tend to induce drowsiness, which is why I take these supplements after dinner.  I frequently use melatonin to help me get to sleep and ward off the effects of jet lag while travelling.  I usually take 1-2mg in these situations.  5mg strikes me as a pretty large dose, but Mike is a big guy.

Because I have melatonin on hand, for the last two weeks, I have been taking it before bed.  The results, I fall asleep more quickly and sleep more soundly.  During the day I feel better too…not surprising, now that I am getting more sleep.



Consult Your Biological Clock to Optimize the Effectiveness of Vitamin and Mineral Supplements



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The Past, Present, and Future of Interval Training


Photo by: nocklebeast

Mention intervals to anyone that has participated in organized athletics, and you will open a floodgate of memories (often unpleasant) of hard work on the field, in the pool, on the track, around the rink, or down the court.  Time after time, interval training comes up as an efficient method for aerobic conditioning and for reducing weight.  Interval training works.  It improves the performance of high school athletes and it can improve the performance of older athletes too.

Interval training is high intensity work, interspersed with short intervals of rest.  The main idea: rest intervals allow more work to be completed at a higher level of intensity than can be accomplished with steady state training.

The modern history of interval training developed to improve running performance (See Lance Smith’s overview – Running Through History or  Steve Magness’s Learning From the Past: Training Through the Ages).  20th century runners and their coaches get the credit for developing this training method.  Around 1910, the Finn Paavo Nurmi and his coach Lauri Pikhala put together an interval system of training.  Also, the Finnish gold medalist (5k, 10k, 8k, and cross-country) Hannes Kolehmainen prepared for his Olympic performances with interval training.  These runners focused on alternating fast and slow runs.  In some cases they would ramp up the effort, while decreasing the distance.  For example, a 4 to 7k run, with fast speed over the last 1 to 2k, immediately followed by four to five sprints.  Or, they would start with a set of sprints, followed by a longer distance run (e.g. 3km) at 75-90% of max effort.

By the mid-1930′s, the Swedish coach Gosta Holmer developed a different style of interval training.  His style of training called for the athlete to vary the speed based on how they felt.  So, during a long run, an athlete may alternate between a fast and a slow pace or between a fast and a medium pace or between a medium and a slow pace.  The Swedish word for this type of training is Fartlek or speed play.  Fartlek continues to be a very popular form of training for runners.

German coach Woldemar Gerschler, watched the Finns and Swedes and determined that there was an opportunity to include more speed work.  With Gerschler interval training reached its modern definition.  His system focused on greater intesity of effort, because the periods of rest or light running that followed allowed for partial recovery, prior to the next hard effort.

Interval training faded somewhat during World War II, but re-emerged with Emil Zatopek.  Zatopek was an innovative athlete, willing to experiment and vary his training methods.  For example, he would run in heavy army boots (they added resistance, were cheap, and lasted well on the rugged trails that he preferred to train on).  When he heard that other athletes were lifting weights to gain strength, he experimented with running with his wife on his back.  And, he ran intervals.  Zatopek would break longer runs into shorter bursts, so that his overall average pace was faster.  Zatopek took interval training to previously unheard of levels of intensity and volume.

After Zatopek, the next big breakthrough for runners came from Percy Cerutty in Australia and Arthur Lydiard in New Zealand.  Cerutty was known to dislike interval training and his Stotan (stoic/Spartan)training philosophy added resistance training to running.  His runners often ran on beaches and up dunes.  Lydiard developed the now essential tool of periodization and insisted on high volumes of running by his athletes.

Intervals continued to play a role in training runners, but interval training was only one part of a periodized program that included a high volume of training (with long intervals), dune running, weight training, and simulating race conditions.  This training program could be laid out over a set period of time with the goal of preparing an athlete for peak performance at a scheduled key event.  Advances in running continued to come, but they were driven by tweaking periodization, training at altitude, introducing plyometric exercises, and understanding  lactic acid build-up and VO2 max.

Other athletes, particularly those engaged in multi-sprint sports (soccer, football, basketball, hockey, tennis, and swimming) continue to use interval training, as a key technique for improving cardio-vascular endurance.  Intervals have proven to be a better method of training these athletes, because long distance training at 70-80% of maximum heart rate can be detrimental to strength and power.  Variations in the duration and intensity of the work period and the duration of rest periods can be tailored to meet the needs of the particular sport.

Experiments with these variables continued and in 1996, Izumi Tabata of the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Kanoya, Japan published the results of his study on the effects of High Intensity Interval Training.  Tabata designed a scientific study of a protocol that was being used by Japanese speed skaters.  He compared two groups of athletes over a six week period.  The first group engaged in one hour of moderate intensity (70% of VO2 max) steady state endurance training on a stationary bicycle.  These athletes trained five days per week.

The second group followed a protocol similar to the one being used by Japanese speed skaters.  This group did their work on a stationary bicycle too.  After a 10 minute warm up, they engaged in a 4 minute period of  8 intervals with a 2:1 ratio between work and rest.  It may help to think of this as 8 sets of 20 seconds of work followed by 10 seconds of rest.  During the work phase, intensity was kept high at 270% of VO2 max with pedalling speeds at 90 rpm.  If pedalling speed dropped below 85 rpm, the set was ended.  If an athlete could complete nine sets at 90 rpm, then the resistance was increased to require 11 watts of additional work during the work sessions.  Interval training was followed by a cool down period.  One day a week the protocol was changed to allow for 30m of moderate intensity (70% of VO2 max) steady state training, followed by 4 rounds of 20s of high intensity work followed by 10s of rest.

The result:Via: Body Recomposition

As you can see, the Tabata protocol did not exceed the results of the steady state group for VO2 max.  However, the Tabata group made substantial gains in VO2 max, particularly during the first half of the experiment.  Also, the experiment started with a significant gap in VO2 max between the two groups and over the six weeks, the Tabata group was able to narrow the gap significantly.

The other significant finding is that the Tabata method of training resulted in improvements to anaerobic capacity.  Whereas, the steady state training did not improve anaerobic capacity.  This makes sense, given that the Tabata group was training for short periods of time at levels that exceeded their aerobic capacity.

Key findings of this study: (1) athletes can achieve good (not maximal) improvement in VO2 max with High Intensity Interval Training; (2) high intensity interval training has some anaerobic benefits for athletes, that cannot be achieved with steady state aerobic exercise alone; (3) compared to the steady state group, less time was required for this type of training.

Coaches and trainers have applied the Tabata protocol to many other exercises.  Porting this protocol to a rowing machine or sprints on the track or in the pool is straightforward.  However, an interesting set of mutations have occurred.  First, coaches and trainers began applying a Tabata inspired protocol to body-weight exercises, such as pushups, pullups, or burpees (8 rounds of 20s of intense effort, performing as many repetitions as possible, followed by 10s of rest).  Then, they created circuit training routines, where each station had a different exercise and followed the Tabata inspired 8 rounds of 20s of intense effort followed by 10s of rest (e.g. Tabata This by CrossFit).  Next came the incorporation of resistance training exercises, using barbells, dumbbells, and other weights (e.g. front squats and thrusters).  These adaptations have become popular in recent years with the rise of CrossFit.  Note, these mutations are not following the Tabata protocol, even if they are colloquially referred to as Tabata workouts.

More recently, efforts have been made to develop and study interval training that is less intense than the Tabata protocol.  The goal is to retain most of the benefits, while being able to safely incorporate high intensity intervals into general fitness training.  A 2009 study by Jonathan Little and Martin Gibala of the Kinesiology Department at McMaster University focused on a two week session of a less extreme form of high intensity interval training.  Subjects completed 8 to 12 rounds on a stationary bike with 60 seconds of exercise at approximately 100% of VO2 max, followed by 75s of rest.  The results in improved VO2 max approximated the results expected for individuals training for longer periods of time (5 hours per week) at steady state levels.  This less extreme form of High Intensity Interval Training has gained traction in the popular press, as people are hoping that the protocol may allow for health benefits similar to longer periods of steady state training (improved cardio-vascular endurance and weight loss) with less time spent on the dreadmill.

As runners discovered, interval training has its limits.  Intervals are not a magic formula or universal solution.  Although the initial results are positive, before anointing High Intensity Interval Training as the optimum protocol for restoring fitness in the general population, issues remain:

—For individuals training on their own, intensity is not likely to be at Tabata levels and even working at the less intense levels may be a hard sell.

—Does this form of training adequately prepare muscles to perform in an endurance setting?  VO2 max is only one element of endurance performance.  While a Tabata trained athlete may have adequate VO2 to compete in an endurance event, it seems likely that they may be under prepared in other areas necessary for successful performance.  One area of concern is  whether muscle endurance is trained adequately.

—Similarly, with Tabata inspired resistance training, what sort of gains can be expected.  For example, if my current maximum number of reps for pullups is 15 and I follow a Tabata inspired 8 rounds doing pullups four times per week with a fifth day doing 8 pullups and 4 Tabata inspired rounds, after 6 weeks can I anticipate that my max performance will improve to 18 or 20 repetitions?

—Where are the plateaus?  As pointed out in the Body Recomposition piece, the majority of the VO2 gains come in the first three weeks of training and the majority of anaerobic gains come within the first four weeks.  Will continued training result in breaking through this plateau, will further training of this sort maintain the new levels of performance, or  over time will there be deterioration (burn out)?

Coaches, athletes, and scientists will continue to study and experiment with interval training.  Meanwhile, interval training is a versatile conditioning method that you can incorporate into your training. How versatile…check out Indecent Intervals, by John Berardi for some inspiration.



Barefoot Runners of the World Unite

Avoiding Death by Exercise

Hip Flexors




EXERCISE: DIY Fitness Gear – Sandbag 101

When I saw this 40 lbs bag of cat litter on sale for 3 bucks, I knew it was time to get to work building a sandbag.  For version 1, I went with a quick and dirty approach, because I really wanted to try the exercises and knew that a proper final version would require more time.  I vowed to be careful with the bag, as I did not want to be sweeping and vacuuming up cat litter for the rest of the day.

I grabbed a handful of plastic shopping bags, fitted bags on both ends, and duct taped them to form a secondary barrier if the main bag broke.  Then, I repeated the process to create a tertiary barrier.  A nylon gym bag that was not getting used served as the shell.  I lined the bottom of the bag with an old bath mat.  Inserted my wrapped cat litter, zipped up the bag and got to work.

I worked through several reps of each exercise in these MBody Strength videos.  I went slow and watched my form.  At 40 lbs, this is not a heavy bag, but I didn’t want a careless mistake on my first day out to ruin the experience.

So, how was it?  It was a blast.  I could feel these exercises working muscles throughout my legs, trunk, and upper body.  Because it is unstable, you constantly adjust and re-balance the weight, engaging all muscles, big and little within a given muscle group.  With the complex exercises, you engage several muscle groups.  I also felt it in my fingers, as grabbing the folds of the bag, really works your grip (Hey – Brazilian Jiu Jitsu guys I’m talking to you).

I liked it well enough, that I will be investing the time to create a more durable set up.  I will follow Ross Enamait’s plans, which you should download here.  For me, this means loading large Ziploc bags about 3/4 full, zipping them shut, duct taping the end of the bag, then double bagging, sealing, and duct taping the end of the second bag.  This should create enough of a barrier to keep the cat litter from leaking and the packages from rupturing.  An added benefit of this approach is that I will be able to add or reduce the weight of the sandbag by adding or removing packages of cat litter.  For added safety, I will stuff the bag with old beach towels or blankets.  This will cushion the packages and fill out the bag.  A quick visit to the local thrift store should take care of that.

Version 2 Under Construction

For an overview of the benefits of sandbag training read this article by Josh Henkin.  If you want to learn more about building your own gym equipment, you should read my previous post on this topic here.   If you are into projects like this, join Scott Bird and Keith Johnson for their twitter chat this Wednesday discussing DIY Combat Training Equipment, including sandbags.  For details on twitter chat 58 click here and spend some time exploring Scott’s website Straight to the Bar.

One last update.  If you have been following my workouts, then you are familiar with Max Barry from NU-FiT (btw Max helped Scott with last week’s twitter chat on Optimum Wellness).  Max’s 1500 challenge gave me a wake up call on my conditioning.  Since then, I have been creatively employing his MetCon routines to  get back to where I need to be.  All the while, Max and I have had some good conversations on twitter.  Max is always very positive, which makes him an excellent motivator.  This week, he paid me a great compliment by listing SEE on his blog roll.  Please repay the kindness – check out his blog for quality workout routines, nutrition tips, and healthy recipes.



EXERCISE: DIY Gym Equipment

EXERCISE: Strength Flows From the Hands

EAT: DIY Greek Style Yogurt


You should follow me on twitter here.

EXERCISE: Barefoot Runners of the World Unite

Photo by: mikebaird

Barefoot running is getting lots of attention this week.   The cover story for Nature by Daniel E. Lieberman of Harvard University is on barefoot running.  Meanwhile, All Things Considered on  National Public Radio is airing a piece on barefoot running.  And, this piece in the New York Times, which focuses on the paleo-lifestyle, mentions barefoot running.  The rise to prominence of Erwan Le Corre and his training methods have also brought barefoot running to light in recent months.  The amazing success of the Vibram Fivefingers shoe cannot be forgotten either.  Although, wearing them technically means you are not barefoot.

Personally, I am no fan of shoes and will use any excuse to take mine off.  So, I am happy to see positive publicity promoting the healthful benefits of a barefoot lifestyle.

Photo by: blacktar

My mother, the physical therapist, first exposed me to the need for exercising barefoot.  I would watch as children came to her office for treatment and the very first thing that she would do was remove their shoes (which frequently looked like physical restraints, rather than as aids for mobility).  I learned that there are lots of little muscles that don’t get worked, when your foot and ankle are fully supported by a shoe or boot.  Without walking around or exercising barefoot, these muscles weaken and can’t get strong.  These weak little foot muscles are part of the reason why walking barefoot in the sand can be difficult, if you have not been to the beach for a while.  But, if you live at the beach, getting around barefoot is no problem.

Images by: Berichard

As previously discussed, I am not a fan of distance running, but for those that are, training barefoot modifies your running pattern, so that you avoid harsh heel strikes.  This change may lessen the impact injuries that many distance runners suffer.  If you want to look into barefoot training for distance running, check out Professor Lieberman’s web site: Running Barefoot or in Minimal Footwear and Barefoot Ken Bob’s extensive collection of information on the topic.

Even 25 years ago, kids on my high school football team were experimenting with barefoot sprint training during the off season.  These same kids would run the 40 yard dash without shoes and, generally, their 40′s were quicker.   We thought that dropping the shoes made their feet lighter.   I would think that in an all out sprint, hard heel strikes are pretty rare, so maybe it was the drop in weight, but, I also believe that they had stronger feet from training without shoes.

I have purposefully run sprints barefoot in the grass in the past and intend to reintroduce this type of training as part of my conditioning work this Spring.  Also, I have been doing lots of squats lately and I do most of them barefoot.  I can say for a fact that doing squats while wearing shoes is substantially easier than doing them barefoot.  I feel like I am cheating, when I have shoes on.

Finally, I am sure that those of you who participate in combat sports are wondering why training barefoot is such a revelation.  Martial arts are generally done barefoot or in very light footwear.  Light shoes or being barefoot may help with quickness and stamina.  But, in sports where footwork is so important, having actual contact with the floor, mat, or canvas makes a huge difference in the amount of information available when trying to gain proper foot placement.  This type of information is lost or muted, when a running shoe cushions your foot.

If you have never exercised barefoot before, scope the resources in this post, then give it a try.  Experiment and pay attention to the new information that is coming to you through the soles of your feet.  I predict that if you stick with it, you will be pleasantly surprised by the gains in athletic performance derived from natural foot placement and improved foot strength.  If you train with Mr. Le Corre, you may never buy athletic shoes again…



EXERCISE: Strength Flows From the Hands

STRETCH: Hips – The Source of Your Physical Power

EXERCISE: How To Set Goals to Meet Your Fitness and Performance Objectives

Photo by: Kamal H.

It’s the New Year.  You have completed your personal year end review and taken note of what worked and what didn’t.  You also created a new list of fitness and performance goals and you are ready to start working on them.  Cool.  I am happy for you.

But for me, going to the gym in January is a depressing lesson in futility.  It is packed with people that are REALLY going to do it this year.  But, by Valentine’s day these jokers are gone and the regulars have the gym back to themselves.  It is the same sad story every year.

Many of the regulars can be depressing too, as they stick to their same old routine, not changing a thing, maybe not losing ground, but certainly not improving.  They are stuck in a rut.  How many people really bust out and make the killer gains that they promise themselves at the beginning of a new year?  Not many.

Well, this year it is going to be different.  Whether you are just starting out or are a gym rat from way back, this year you are going to make those killer gains in performance.  Here’s how…

First, let’s cover a key point, before we get to the 4-step process that will make you a goal reaching machine.  Bottom line up front, you have to believe in manifesting results.  Absent some sense that you can impact your life-course, working on your goals will either seem pointless or feel like punishment.

Every goal starts out as a point, an idea in your mind.  Your mind may be very real to you, but it does not exactly have a massive presence in the physical world.  So, you need to get the idea out of your head and into the real world.

The easiest way to start transferring an idea from your mind to the physical world is by writing it down.  Use your words, create a diagram, draw a picture, make a map, be as creative as you want, but get that idea out of your head and onto a legal pad, a drawing tablet, whiteboard, etc.  When you are done, a two dimensional representation of your idea exists in the physical world.

You now have something that you can look at, share, with others, modify, edit, etc.  Working from this representation, you can create a heightened level of awareness within yourself and your network of family, friends, and co-workers.  Awareness of this sort will bring you options, opportunities to experiment, and offers of help.

With that bit of meta-physics out of the way, let’s get to the 4-step process:

STEP 1: Set Your Goal.

When setting a goal, you must keep two key points in mind.  One, the goal must be challenging.  In the beginning, you want to feel anxious about whether you can achieve your goal.  As you make progress, anxiety will start to fade and be replaced by a sense of control.  If you encounter a set back, then anxiety will return.  Oscillating along a spectrum of anxiety, arousal, flow, and control is to be expected.  But, if the goal is not challenging, then you will be facing apathy, boredom, and relaxation.  Not exactly states that will push you forward.

Two, your goal must be specific and measurable.  Without metrics, I will get in better shape this year, is not a meaningful goal.  Similarly, I will eat healthier this year, is not going to cut it.  Sometimes, general goals work as a starting point.  For example, your goal may start off as This year I want a better looking butt or I want to run a marathon (If a better butt is your goal for this year, check out this article by the Glute Guy.) But, achieving these larger goals will require setting smaller training goals for you to work on throughout the year.  There are coaches, trainers, friends, clubs, books, web sites, etc. out there that can help you establish specific, focused, training goals.

My fitness/training goals for this year:

100 push-ups

500 squats

20 pullups

Run 1 mile <  6 minutes.

Note: I am toying with the idea of making this the birthday challenge and trying to do all 4 as a circuit.

STEP 2: Publish Your Goal.

See what I just did.  I told you what my goals are.  Feel free to publish your goals in the comments section for this post.  Once you publish your goals, other people can check in to see how you are progressing.  If you aren’t making much progress, then your real friends will call you out and the only way to avoid the shame is to do the work necessary to reach your goals.

Meanwhile, the more people that know about your goal, the more people will be able to help by providing support, passing along informative articles, or letting you know what has worked for them in the past.  With enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow. Consider it an open source approach to helping you overcome problems with reaching your goal.

Note: I am very anxious about my 1 mile<6 m goal.  Anyone with expertise, advice, tips, resource material, etc. on how to train for improved running times at this distance, please leave a comment or send me an email.

STEP 3: Advertise to Yourself.

Vintage Ad Browser

Say what you want about advertising, but it gets people to do things that they normally wouldn’t.  Successful advertising breaks the 2 dimensional barrier by appealing to your physical senses.  Lynn Brem’s Take Back Your Brain site is chock full of marketing strategies for advertising to yourself.  Use them!

Designing a personal ad campaign is an area where you can really let your creative side show.  For example, I draw colorful mind maps and tape them to the inside of my medicine cabinet.  Every morning, when I reach for the mouthwash, my attention is drawn to these wild images and I can’t help but think about where I am and where I need to be.  You can use white boards to list projects and corresponding action steps, design personal flyers to post on bulletin boards, make a screen saver slide show that advertises to you when you walk by or when you login to your computer, craft text messages and have them automatically sent to your iPhone or Blackberry.

Photo by: sirwiseowl

Think of all the different ways that advertisers grab your attention and then generate positive feelings about their product.  Now use these same tactics to your advantage.  The point is to maintain awareness of your goals and to generate feelings of desire for achieving them.  The competition for your attention is intense.  Use self-advertising to give yourself a fighting chance to stay focused on achieving your own goals.

Note: For an interesting read on the psychology associated with persuasion see Robert Cialdini’s Influence the Psychology of Persuasion.

STEP 4: Stay Positive.

This may be the most difficult part.  There are always interruptions and set backs when pursuing goals.   Staying positive in the face of challenges can be difficult.  To make it easier, don’t forget to reward yourself for interim successes.  Set marks to meet and reward yourself for meeting them.

Don’t to be too hard on yourself when things aren’t going perfectly.  To reach your goal, you will have to make adjustments along the way.  Just like the perfect shower temperature, you have to adjust, test, adjust, and repeat until you have everything dialed in.  Then, inevitably, someone down the hall flushes a toilet and you have to start all over again.

Finally, you need to know going into this that the end result never quite matches the perfect image you had in your mind when you dreamed up this goal.  But, did you really expect that after moving an idea through 3 dimensions, it wouldn’t get warped a little in the process?  I did not promise you perfection.  I promised that you could achieve your goals.  Trust me, I didn’t imagine myself looking like a zombie at the end of my quest for  forty flights of stair lunges.  But, my goal was to do 40 flights of stairs and I did 40 flights of stairs.

OK – That’s it, That’s all.  Now, you have a 4 point formula to keep you from being one of the many that fail to keep their New Year’s resolutions.  With a specific and measurable goal, published to your supporting and honest admirers, a personalized motivational ad campaign, and a positive attitude you will achieve your performance goals this year.


For a sample of related Stretch Exercise Eat posts SEE:

EXERCISE: The Importance of Rituals

EXERCISE: What I Learned From the Birthday Challenge

STRETCH: Recovering From Injuries

How to Train Your Eyes Like a Kung Fu Master

The 36th Chamber of Shao Lin

I am thinking you probably don’t get to spend your day training like a Shao Lin monk, polishing your mind and your body as you move through 35 chambers of focused training.

When you do take time to exercise, do you give special attention to your eyes?

Throughout the day, instead of protecting our vision, strengthening our ability to detect motion, or improving our hand-eye coordination, we take our eyes for granted.  We clock significant amounts of screen time…TV at home, the computer at work, and the iPhone or Blackberry on the road. And, our eyes suffer.

During the day, do you take a break from the screen, rub your eyes, let them rest, or refocus them on a faraway object?

As you age, do you accept weaker eyesight and deteriorating hand-eye coordination as inevitable?

Does focused exercise for your eyes seem like a weird idea?

Ahh, grasshopper, there is much to learn.  Keep reading to discover the hidden secrets of massaging your eyes, strengthening the muscles that move the eyeball, and how to exercise the muscles that stretch the lens.   Next, we will explore both modern and ancient methods for improving hand-eye coordination and peripheral vision. Train hard and you will keep your eyes healthy, improve your overall athletic performance, and learn to slow time.

As every journey must begin with a single step, let us consider this first set of exercises from the wikiHow post on How to Exercise Your Eyes.

(1) Sit comfortably on a chair. Rub your hands together until they feel warm. Close your eyes and cover them lightly with your cupped palms. Avoid applying pressure on your eyeballs. Place your palms so that the nose remains uncovered, and the eyes remain behind the slight hollow of the palms. Make sure that no light rays enter the eyes, and leave no gaps between fingers or between the edge of the palms and the nose. You may still see other lingering traces of colors. Imagine deep blackness and focus on the blackness. Take deep breaths slowly and evenly, while thinking of some happy incident; or visualize a distant scene. After your eyes see nothing but blackness, remove your palms from your eyes. Repeat the palming for 3 minutes or more.

(2) Close your eyes tightly for 3-5 seconds, then open them for 3-5 seconds. Repeat this 7 or 8 times.

(3) Close your eyes and massage them with circular movements of your fingers for 1-2 minutes. Make sure you press very lightly; otherwise, you could hurt your eyes.

(4) Press three fingers of each hand against your upper eyelids, and hold them there for 1-2 seconds, then release. Repeat 5 times.

(5) Sit and relax. Roll your eyes clockwise, then counter-clockwise. Repeat 5 times, and blink in between each time.

(6) Sit about 6 inches (150 mm) from the window. Make a mark on the glass at your eye level (a small sticker, black or red, would be perfect). Look through this mark and focus on something far away for 10-15 seconds; then focus on the mark again.

(7) Hold a pencil in front of you at arm’s length. Move your arm slowly to your nose, and follow the pencil with your eyes until you can keep it in focus. Repeat 10 times.

(8) Look in front of you at the opposite wall and pretend that you are writing with your eyes, without turning your head. It may seem difficult at first, but with a bit of practice it is really fun. The bigger the letters, the better the effect.

(9) Imagine that you are standing in front of a really big clock. Look at the middle of the clock. Then look at any hour mark, without turning your head. Look back at the center. Then look at another hour mark. Do this at least 12 times. You can also do this exercise with your eyes closed.

(10) Focus on a distant object (over 150 feet or 50 m away) for several seconds and slowly refocus your eyes on a nearby object (less than 30 feet or 10 m away) that’s in the same direction. Focus for several seconds and go back to the distant object. Do this 5 times.

(11) Focus on an object in the distance (as far as possible) with a low contrasting background. Do this for a few minutes every half hour or so. This does not improve your vision, nor does any other technique. It can, however, maintain your best eyesight level during the day and prevent significant further vision deterioration.

With eleven exercises, this is a comprehensive list.  Some of the exercises are great for helping your eyes recover from too much screen time.  Try the palming exercise, to give your eyes a break at different intervals during your work day or follow the directions for a gentle eye massage.  Other exercises, like tracing the letters of the alphabet help you strengthen the muscles that move your eyes.  While changing focus from near to far targets the muscles that stretch and contract your lens.  And for all athletes, exercise 7, which focuses awareness on your peripheral vision, will improve performance and reaction times.

Now, let’s have some fun while working with our eyes.  For this drill, all you need is a bucket, some tennis balls, and two people.  One person stands with the bucket at their feet.  The other person sets up about 2 meters away with all of the tennis balls.  The person with the tennis balls tosses one to the person with the bucket, who  uses one hand to grab the tennis ball out of the air, drop it in the bucket, and set up for the next incoming ball.  After a few times through, the catcher recognizes that they do not need to change their focus from the ball to the bucket.  They can find the bucket using their peripheral vision and maintain focus on catching the incoming tennis balls.  Jump to  the video at Stack TV to see how this drill works.

Hitting a speed bag is an all-time great exercise for developing hand-eye coordination and nothing sounds better than walking into a gym and hearing the tom-tom beat of a speed bag being worked.  This video gives a decent explanation of how to get started.

How to Work a Speed Bag

If you are just starting out with a speed bag be patient.  It takes practice to find your rhythm and adjust your reaction time.  The bag used in the video is a very small, very light, very fast bag.  Once you are an ace speed bag artist, bags like this are a blast to work with.  But, when you are first starting out, they seem impossible to hit.  Start with a big, fat, slow bag.  This gives you plenty of target to hit and plenty of time to react.  When you get bored with the big bag, swap it out for smaller and faster ones.

Volume matters.  Commit to doing a lot of work on the bag.  Set a timer or put your sets in the hundreds…do 100 with each hand, then 100 alternating hands.  Doing volume work trains your eyes and hands and digs a groove in your muscle memory.

Once you get comfortable with the bag, there are lots of ways to use it.  Here are some tips for beginners from world renowned boxing trainer Freddie Roach.

I have saved the best for last…the ultimate in hand eye coordination, fun, and entertainment…JUGGLING.  I can unequivocally state that learning to juggle has changed my life.

The Book That Changed My Life

Since high school, juggling has helped me break the ice with kids all over the world.  You don’t need to be able to speak the language to make people smile.  All you need is three easy to toss objects (Tip: hacky sacks are light, easy to pack, and perfect for juggling).

The coolest thing about learning to juggle happens, when you get it…really get it for the first time.  Time slows as your focus increases.  You see the objects you are juggling as they move through their trajectory.  With practice, you learn to relax, while simultaneously speeding up the processing of information.  As your mind moves faster, the balls move slower and you know where to put your hands to make the right catch, the right toss, or the right adjustment.  Seriously, learning to juggle changes your brain.

No ancient Chinese secret will restore your vision or miraculously fix long standing eye problems, but you can  take better care of your eyes by resting them, massaging them, and exercising the muscles that move and focus them.  Training for improved hand-eye coordination and increased peripheral vision can be fun and helps with general athleticism.  To make your Kung Fu strong…Exercise your eyes and learn to juggle.


EXERCISE: The Importance of Rituals

twyla tharp

Photo by: rolbroute

*We are creatures of habit. Routine behaviors guide our days without our awareness. They are the most powerful forces in our lives. To demonstrate the power of routine behaviors to yourself, try switching your watch to your other arm. How does it feel?

*If you have been trying to adopt a healthier lifestyle, but have been finding it difficult to find the time, energy, motivation, etc. it may be that you already have a surplus of routine behaviors crowding out your new program. For greater success when adopting a new stretching, eating, or exercise regimen, incorporate a small ritual into the process.

* Rituals are patterns of behavior that are easy to accomplish. After enough regular practice, they nearly become unconscious, but their importance lies in the fact that they are catalysts for bigger efforts.

*The other day, I came across Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit. Ms. Tharp is exceptional in her ability to recognize and explain behaviors that facilitate creativity. Early in the book, she discusses the importance of rituals, as a call to action. Ms. Tharp’s morning ritual: wake up, get dressed, step outside, hail a taxi, ask the driver to take her to the gym. Once she has told the driver where to go, the ritual is complete and she is on track for her workout. The workout itself is not the ritual, it is the follow-on action.

The Creative HabitPhoto by: .nele

*Joint mobility exercises are my morning ritual. Doing these exercises clears my head, gets me focused on moving my body, and sets me up for the 100 push ups that follow. Without the initial joint mobility ritual, excuses and distractions make it easy to skip the more strenuous push ups.

*I also have micro-rituals. When I am lifting weights, before starting a set, I take three deep slow breaths, in through the nose out through the mouth, followed by three quick breaths, using only my mouth. My first lift starts, as I force the last exhalation through pursed lips. This little ritual preps my mind for concentration, focuses my body for exertion, and sets the timing of the lift.

*For me, these rituals have a calming effect. Prior to initiating the ritual, accomplishing the follow on action is an anxious desire, subject to being derailed by distractions, other interests, or plain old chickening out. Once the ritual is started, tension dissipates and the follow on action becomes a foregone conclusion.

*Another ritual worth experimenting with is taking a few moments in the morning to visualize your day and to think about being successful with your most important project. Taking a few moments to visualize success with a project is not doing the project, but it sets you up for pursuing the follow-on action. At the end of my work day, I purposely brainstorm projects or action steps that I will need to work on the next day. This ritual insures continuity, from day to day. More importantly, this ritual disengages me from work (once an idea is written down, I can forget about it until the next day) and preps me for the follow-on action of engaging my home / personal life.

* If you want to make positive changes in your routines, but are having difficulty finding the time, energy, or focus necessary, then develop a little ritual to help make the follow-on behavior inevitable, rather than overwhelming. A warm cup of tea before stretching, visualizing a successful lift, or putting on your favorite apron before cooking, are examples of little things that move you toward bigger projects, help you focus, and reduce your anxiety. Cherish your rituals, they are the gateway to consistent positive routines.

*Rituals can also be quite humorous.  For example, before I get out of bed, I prefer for the numbers on the digital clock to add up to 13 or 9.  11 is OK too, but I prefer 13 and 9.  So, don’t be shy, post a few of your more unusual rituals in the comments section.

EXERCISE: What I Learned From the Birthday Challenge

40Photo by: Andreas Cappell

On Friday August 7, 2009, I turned 40.  To celebrate, I completed 40 flights of stair lunges.  Here is what I learned from the experience…

Humans can sense weakness, even over the Internet.  Of the three challenges listed in the poll, 40 flights of stair lunges was the one that I was least prepared for.  I hadn’t actually done any stair lunges, before throwing that one in the mix.  It was the challenge that required the most preparation.  So, of course, it was the most popular choice.

I also learned lots about lunges.  From a guy’s perspective, lunges, (particularly stair lunges) are a great way to improve hip flexibility. Every time you drop down into a lunge,you are stretching your hips.  In men, as we age, loss of power in athletic performance can be correlated to tightening / loss of mobility in the hips.  Stair lunges are one way to work on hip flexibility, while building strength.

P1010776Photo by: Alex Stoffa (Beware: Stair Lunging Zombies are Coming for You)

Ladies, stair lunges will shape and tone your butt.  It’s true.  Which explains why every time I see a workout designed for women, lunges are prominently featured.

I trained for this challenge, by doing stair lunges at least three times per week.  This is a rough schedule for the five weeks leading up to the challenge:

Week One: Ten flights of stairs twice during the week and a 20 story session on the weekend.

Week Two: A ten story climb with a medicine ball, a 20 story climb, and a 30 story climb on the weekend.

Week Three: One 10 story session with a medicine ball, a twenty story climb, and a 35 story climb on the weekend.  The 35 story climb on the weekend was the most that I did during training.

Week Four: I started to taper with one 20 story session and a 10 story session with the medicine ball.

Week Five: One ten story session with the medicine ball and the 40 story challenge.

The ten story mark was easy, because from the gym to my apartment is ten stories.  So, I could finish up a gym workout and head to the stairs to lunge my way home.  With the longer climbs, I stretched in the apartment, then warmed up by walking down the stairs.  From my apartment to the lowest basement (B3) is fifteen flights.  Once at the bottom, I was warmed up and ready to tackle 20, 30, and ultimately 40 flights of stairs.

I found that I enjoyed doing the lunges and liked the stairwell environment.  It was nice to be alone after working out in the gym.  I also felt a bit like an explorer going from level to level. From a practical standpoint, I now have a really good idea of how the stairs are set up (a few of the flights are shorter and a few floors have extra steps on the turn).  I am much better prepared to find my way out of the building in the dark using the stairs.

There were other surprise too.  On the day of the challenge, I had planned to go from B3 to floor 39, just to make sure that I covered at least 40 full flights of stairs.  When I got to what I thought was the top, at floor 39, I discovered two additional flights of stairs.  They led to PH1 and PH2.  I was baffled by the floor designations, until Eileen pointed out that PH likely meant Penthouse.  Who knew, secret levels of luxury hidden within the building.

I will definitely stick with doing stair lunges.  Particularly coming back from the gym with the medicine ball.  For a whole ebook of stair based workouts check out Virgil Aponte’s Ultimate Stair Exercises.

Thanks to everyone who voted and encouraged me to take this on.   It is always fulfilling to set and meet a goal.  Now, what will your birthday challenge be?

P1010775Photo by: Alex Stoffa

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EXERCISE: Avoiding Death by Exercise

Memento Mori*With the Tour de France winding down, it is hard not to notice what a strong place in popular culture the endurance sports hold.

Photo by: henning

*Cycling is still second in the campaign for most popular endurance sport.  Long distance running remains the undisputed champ.  Forrest Gump ran for 3 years, 2 months, 14 days, and 16 hours.  The previous three U.S. President’s have used jogging photo ops to depict themselves as health conscious.  Now, the Nike + Ipod sport kit has united two of the most recognizable commercial brands in the world and is touting a new ability to monitor the healthful effects of running (or is this just another gimmick to sell running shoes and iTunes).

*Given limited resources of time and money, you have to make important decisions about how and when you will exercise.  Here are three questions to ask yourself:

(1) Can you afford a sport that requires $100+ running shoes every three to six months (how about a bike and bike maintenance), an iPod, sporty outfits, energy drinks, power bars, race entrance fees and travel costs?

(2) Do you have the time to properly train for: a marathon, a half-marathon, or a 100 mile day on your bike?

(3) Will this type of training actually improve your health?

*The last question is the most important one.  Evidence shows that training for and participating in endurance sports are dangerous to your long term health.  To save time and money and avoid permanent damage to your body, skip training for endurance sports.  Instead, improve the effectiveness of your training and safeguard your health with sprints and focused 20m periods of steady exercise.

*The number one reason to avoid endurance sports is their tendency to result in death.  High profile running related deaths include, Pheidippides, who dropped dead after running from Marathon to Athens to announce the victory over the Persians.  Jim Fixx, one of the top promoters of running in the modern era, became famous in the 1970s for touting the health benefits of regular jogging.  On July 24, 1982, after finishing his daily run, he suffered a heart attack and died.  More recently, on November 3, 2007, Ryan Shay an amazingly successful distance runner, died during the US Olympic marathon trials in New York City.  Five and a half miles into the race, he suffered a massive heart attack.  High profile cycling death, November 2002, Edmund R. Burke, Ph.D., author of The Complete Book of Long-Distance Cycling: Build the Strength, Skills, and Confidence to Ride as Far as You Want suffered a heart attack and died while riding.

*Men’s Health cites a  1982 New England Journal of Medicine study showing that the chance for sudden death during exercise is not highest in couch potatoes, individuals that only exercise vigorously 1 to 19 minutes per week.  Rather, the highest risk group is men who exercise vigorously for 140 or more minutes per week.  It is pretty easy to crank out 2h and 20m (140m) of exercise over a week, when training for a marathon or long distance bicycle event.  The sweet spot, with the lowest risk for sudden death while exercising, is the range between 20 to 139 minutes per week.

*Risk of serious bodily injury is the number two reason to avoid endurance sports.  Stress fractures and damage to joints are obvious potential if not inevitable side effects from long distance running.   But, recent studies of competitive cyclists show that they have significantly less bone density than active, but not competitive athletes.  Putting cyclists at greater risk for fractures.  Not a good thing when sitting well above ground level and traveling at high speeds.

*The real benefit of endurance sports is supposed to be improved cardiovascular health.  However, one has to wonder about this claim, when the great marathoner Alberto Salazar, suffers two heart attacks, leaving his heart permanently damaged.  At some point, the benefits to your heart from exercise level off and go negative.

*MSNBC and Men’s Health report that as measured by enzymes leaking through the heart membrane of marathoners, significant stress on the heart appears to be a side effect from running a marathon.  Ultrasound and blood tests of 60 marathon finishers revealed that some runners’ hearts had difficulty refilling their chambers.  Also, abnormalities were noted in the way that blood was pumped from the right side of the heart to the lungs.  By the end of a marathon, there is a significant probability that your heart has been so taxed that it fails to function properly.

*This happens, because, as you pile up miles, muscles become damaged.  Continuing to run causes your muscles to release enzymes which signal to the body that a significant injury exists.  The body reacts to this information with an emergency response team.  Your adrenal glands and brain release vasopressin and cortisol.

NOTE: Health risks associated with chronic stress and high levels of cortisol are well-known.  The continuous release of cortisol, without a counter-balance of relaxation, causes damage to the body, including impaired cognitive performance, suppressed thyroid function, blood sugar imbalances such as hyperglycemia, decreased bone density, decrease in muscle tissue, higher blood pressure, lowered immunity and inflammatory responses in the body, slowed wound healing, and increased abdominal fat.  Increased abdominal fat has its own set of associated health problems like heart attacks and strokes.

*Meanwhile, cytokines from your muscles signal your liver to start producing C-reactive protein, an acute phase reactant, levels of which rise significantly during inflammatory processes.  The body is reacting to these muscle injuries, as it would to extreme stress due to a substantial traumatic injury.  The result is significant inflammation and an increase in coagulation agents.

*These emergency systems are meant to be engaged rarely.  They are not meant to be turned on repeatedly.  The body may be willing to risk slight damage to the heart if it means averting death from a serious injury.  But, imposing these types of systemic crises over and over again can create cumulative negative effects.

*Training for and running a marathon, as a personal challenge to be met and conquered, is an individual choice.  But, like many other personal challenges, it is a behavior fraught with risks including death and serious injury.  Contrary to pop culture marketing campaigns, habitual long distance running is not a good health practice.

*Now, let me give you three reasons to experiment with sprinting.

(1) Who would you rather look like?


Photo by: Eckhard Pecher

London Marathon 2005Photo by: Nickt

(2) Who do you think is having more fun?

Paris half marathon

Photo by: Frederic de Villamil

usain bolt world recordPhoto by: rich115

(3) How much time do you have?

watch face*From an efficiency standpoint, with sprinting, you get better cardio benefits in a shorter period of time.  Try running a 440 all out and see what happens.

Photo by: waynemah

Don’t like the track, then try the pool.  Slice through your top 100 freestyle.  Don’t have access to a pool, then try nailing ten double-unders with your speed rope.  Now, tell me if you ever breathe like that while out for a jog.  Rest.  Now do it again.  These are short bursts of maximum effort, which is what your body was designed for, rather than the constant stress from perpetual exercise.

* With 20m of steady training, you can get a solid total body workout.  Throw in some Tabata work and you are getting plenty of cardio.

*Try a split between sprinting and days in the gym.  Three days in the gym with a couple of days on the track, on a field, or on the court. Now switch three days on the track, with a couple of days in the gym.  This sort of training lends itself to creative tinkering.  It is not a grinding battle to endure a long workout.

*Stop wasting time damaging your body.  Avoid endurance sports, work on sprints, and experiment with 20m workouts.  Help yourself get fit and stay healthy.  You will look good and feel good too.

*Resources/Further Reading:

—Are you running yourself to death?

—Is Bicycling Bad for Your Bones?

—Exercise and death:  Am I safer on the couch?

—Death by Exercise

—Art Devany’s Archive for the Death by Exercise Category

—Sprinting: The Purest Most Powerful Physique Shaper in an Athlete’s Arsenal!

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