Monday, October 9, 2017

Consistency Vs. Change: Cycling and Chaos for Comprehensive Adaptation

The best workout is the one you're not doing.

Someone who chases two rabbits at once catches neither.

Programming - which just means how you design your training over time - is one of the most interesting and least talked about aspects of martial arts training.

I have never seen a traditional martial arts school that implemented any formal programming. People who compete in professional sports, especially ones with big peaking requirements (like professional fighting or Olympic sports, where you have to be awesome for a brief period of time) have training programs where they work on specific qualities at different times of  the year - maybe a a few weeks to work endurance, then a few weeks to specialize in strength, a few weeks in power, a few weeks in skill, etc. I've never seen a karate dojo where there are blocks like that - building aerobic endurance for 6 weeks, then 6 weeks of alactic training, then 6 weeks of hypertrophy, 6 weeks of power development, with deloads in between.

There are good business reasons not to structure karate classes like that, including the fact that it would seem weird, and you'd have to spend a lot of time explaining it to people. However, it's probably a good idea to have this kind of structured programming for yourself, so your out-of-class workouts are focused on building different physical qualities at different times.


Martial arts ability depends on many different physical qualities - strength, endurance, power, flexibility, balance - in addition to skill. If YOU want to get better at martial arts, you should become more skilled (skill is just a catchall phrase for your nervous system - your brain is better at making the right muscles fire at the right time with the right force to execute the right move), but you should ALSO add some muscle, get stronger, increase your aerobic capacity, increase your alactic anaerobic capacity, increase lactic capacity, increase power, increase rate of force development, and lose bodyfat. Obviously not EVERY reader will need or benefit from an increase in every single one of these qualities - maybe you are already as lean as you should be, or as muscular, or as aerobically fit, and for you, increasing that particular quality won't translate into an improvement in martial arts ability, but EVERY reader could benefit from increasing some of them (no person is so strong, aerobically and anaerobically fit, muscular, lean, and flexible that there is no point in improving ANY of those qualities).

Great, you're probably thinking. That sounds like a lot of work.

And it is!

Maybe at this point you're trying to figure out how to cram your week full of workouts that will build all of those qualities optimally. And that's a wonderful idea, except it won't work.

Your body simply can't do all of these things at once. Unless you're an absolute beginner (if you're completely untrained, you can probably improve all of these things at the same time, because beginners are lucky like that) you can't build muscle and endurance simultaneously. You can kind of train for all of these qualities all of the time, and you will improve, but you'll improve faster if you focus on each of them for short periods of time.

I don't mean you should take 3 months off from karate and just lift heavy weights. I do mean that your training should place extra emphasis on one or two qualities, hit those qualities extra hard, and then switch what quality you focus on after 4-12 weeks.

There are better and worse ways to organize these cycles of training, and if you're a professional athlete you should pursue that more carefully. But if you're a martial arts hobbyist, it's not critical. Focus on some physical quality for a while. When you get bored, or stop seeing progress, switch! You really don't have to make it more complicated than that.

So for example:

Suppose you take 2 martial arts classes a week, and train on your own for a solid hour on 2 other days, and maybe have 2, 15 minute blocks of time a week to do easy stuff.

Here's what you do:

1. The classes, I presume, you don't control. You'll do whatever your instructor tells you to.
2. In your 2 hourlong workouts, pick a quality. Say you decide to build some muscle. For those workouts, lift heavy weights, for 5-8 reps per set, with big multijoint movements (squat, deadlift, overhead press, row, chinup/pulldowns, bench press, maybe some curls and tricep pushdowns for the guns). Or, say you decide to build up your aerobic system. Do an hour on the elliptical trainer, with your heart rate at a constant rate between 130 and 150 bpm, or do some running, or do HIIT, whatever. Or say you decide to build up your power. Do medicine ball throws, sprints, depth jumps, and so forth.
3. In the 15 minute blocks, do some mobility work (stretching). Stretching is always good - not necessarily right before your workout, but stretching on your off days will not, as far as I know, interfere with progress in any other physical quality. If you are in a muscle building  phase, maybe do 10 minutes of intervals to keep your heart going. If you are in an endurance phase, use those 15 minutes to do a  little heavy lifting (one arm pushups and single leg squats, for 5 sets, will give you a whole body strength workout in 10 minutes).
4. When you get bored, or stop getting better at whatever you're working in your 'phase,' switch!

Now the fear people have is that the qualities they build up during the 'phase' are lost when you switch to a new phase. To a certain extent, that is true: after a muscle building phase, if you do 6 weeks of intervals you might lose some muscle. But you're not doing NO strength training - you'll do a little during those 15 minute workouts, and some during the martial arts classes. So you'll likely retain a lot of the muscle you've built, even if you don't keep adding more.

The same is true of endurance. If you increase your aerobic fitness, then move on to specialize in other qualities, you're still working the aerobic system in class and while doing your other workouts. So it's not like running two hours a week, then sitting on the couch for 6 weeks.

Imagine the simplest breakdown: you need to develop 2 incompatible qualities (how many qualities there are, and how specific we get in our blocks, will vary depending on how detailed you want to be) - let's stay super simple and just say strength and endurance (strength can be broken down into several different types, as can endurance, but we don't have to). Spend 6 weeks really focusing on strength, but doing just enough endurance work that you don't lose any, or much, of your aerobic conditioning.  Then switch, and for 6 weeks hit the aerobic work hard and do just enough strength work to hold onto your strength gains. And remember that that just enough work is very likely to be getting done in your formal classes, so you might not need to devote any extra time to that.

Rinse and repeat. Depending on your stress levels and how close you are to overtraining, take a deload week (maybe skip the extra 2 independent workouts) in between phases.

If 6 weeks seems too long, and you get bored, do 4 weeks. If you're still making gains at 6 weeks, and want to push it harder, go for 8.

There are a couple of big advantages to this style of training:

  • You'll make better long term gains doing this than trying to work every quality at once.
  • You will likely be motivated to tackle each new phase. Every six weeks you're getting a whole new set of goals, and making rapid progress. And a whole new set of workouts.
  • By rotating movements and exercises you're less likely to get repetitive motion injuries. Doing the same movements for high reps day in and day out for years is hard on your  joints.
You can plan these shifts or just switch your focus whenever you get bored or stale or feel like a change. It's your training!

One last point: if you have a promotion or a big competition, you might want to plan your training around that. Make sure you have a deload week coming into the competition (ease off just before the promotion or the competition). Depending on your personal strengths and weaknesses, and the way promotions are handled in your style, you might want to be sure to hit that promotion right at the tail end of an endurance phase, for example. 

If you'd like, let me know how your training is going in comments.


Friday, September 29, 2017

Bad Science: book reviews and snappy punches

Sometimes people say things that are just so dumb I have to speak up. This is one of those days.

I've been reading more books than blogs lately, largely because the well of information in blogs has sort of dried up. Lots of people blog great basic fitness information, and I found that hugely useful to me personally ten years ago, but the market has reached a saturation point, and my favorite fitness bloggers talk more about business and motivation than about physiology, and that's not where my interest lies (which is not to say there's anything wrong with business talk, only that it's not what I personally care about).

I'm interested in martial arts history, at least to some extent, but my real passion (as is probably obvious to anyone who reads this blog) is application of modern science to martial arts training.

So I picked up a couple of books simply because their titles popped up on Amazon and they seemed appealing: Karate Science and Fight Like a Physicist. I had no previous experience with either author, and still don't.

Before I continue, let me just say: both books are worth a read; Fight Like a Physicist is significantly better (more clear, more correct, at least as far as I can tell) while Karate Science is less clear, but makes recommendations that are more interesting (possibly because they aren't clear) and therefore in some way is more thought provoking. But neither book is a must read (I doubt any book on the market qualifies as a must-read for a karate practitioner, at least in my opinion, unless your style's founder or your instructor has published a book. But that's a debate for another day).

A topic that is covered in both of these books, and that seems popular in martial arts forums (I've seen it asked often) is the difference between 'snappy' techniques and 'thrusting' techniques - why strikes are sometimes more 'snappy' than 'pushy', how to do one or the other, which one is better, how can we train to do one over the other, etc. If you're not sure what I mean, find a heavy bag. Jab it as hard as you can, and see what it does. Then stick out your arm and give it a long, hard shove. I bet the bag will move a lot farther with the shove than with the jab, but I bet you know intuitively that jabbing someone hard will hurt them a lot more than a long, hard shove (unless they're standing at the edge of the cliff).

 A fast jab and a shove are opposite ends of the spectrum, but we have all seen people whose punches are much more like a shove and others whose punches are more like a jab. I've also seen various martial artists say that snappy techniques are better, and thrusting techniques are worse. Some say that each type of technique has its place (I lean in this direction - sometimes you want to just hurt someone, sometimes there is value in moving them, even if by doing so you hurt them less).

Both of these books deal with this topic. The treatment in Fight Like a Physicist is, I think, exactly correct, in pretty much every way. I won't reiterate it fully here, but roughly speaking, snappy punches are faster but involve less mass, giving them relatively more kinetic energy but relatively less momentum (kinetic energy is proportional to the square of velocity, momentum to the velocity). Thrusting strikes are slower but involve more mass, giving them relatively more momentum and less kinetic energy. The more kinetic energy, the more damage you'll do (energy is, literally, the ability to change things). The more momentum, the more you will cause the target to start moving. So a faster technique will hurt more; a technique with more mass behind it will cause the target to move farther.

This is all based on very solid physics - this isn't advanced physics, we're talking 101 level college course at most, maybe a solid high school class. These are very basic principles of mechanics, though they usually aren't applied to martial arts. If you don't agree with this stuff, please do me a favor and take it to your high school physics teacher and ask.

What you shouldn't, ever, do, please, is read Karate Science and pay attention to its analysis of snappy punches. I'll quote out of a description of snapping strikes on page 199 and 200 of the book (bold face is mine):
According to physics, when you push against a wall or hit a target (action force), the target will push back into you with an equal amount of force until either the force applied stops or either side gives way. In addition, it can take time to transfer that action force, and for the object getting force applied to it to transfer that force back into the force applier (reaction force).
In these techniques, the limb penetrates the target, pushing through the soft tissue layers, then immediately retracts before the opposing body applies reaction force to the attacking limb
No. No. No.
Reaction forces DO NOT TAKE TIME. When you jump, you push down against the floor. There is no delay while the floor waits to push back. I don't mean there is a very small delay - I mean there is NO delay. The forces are simultaneous. Exactly simultaneous. There is no equation in any physics textbook anywhere to measure the delay before a reaction force is applied to an actor. BECAUSE THERE IS NO DELAY. NONE.

Retracting a technique quickly will NOT transfer extra energy into the target and prevent the attacker from having to handle reaction forces. The only way to lower the amount of reaction force you have to deal with is to hit with less force. You can't outrace reaction forces, you can't be so fast that the reaction forces don't have time to get to your hand before you've retracted your fist (though that sounds like a good topic for a Master Ken video or a martial arts anime. Maybe Son Goku in Super Saiyan Green form can punch that fast).

J.D. Swanson, according to the amazon author page, holds a PhD in integrative biosciences. I'm sure he knows a lot more about a lot of things than I do or every will, but those paragraphs are pretty inexcusable.

The point?

It is absolutely worth understanding the different qualities of a strike - whether a way of striking generates relatively more kinetic energy, relatively more momentum, or both. And it's absolutely worth understanding the right time to use techniques of different sorts - a great example is a teep in Muai Thai, which is a pushing front kick that is designed to create distance and push the opponent across the ring (it's a thrusting technique, but it's done purposefully to be a thrusting technique).

But if you don't really understand the reasons behind techniques, making up explanations is a bad way to go. You lose credibility with any students who took and understood high school physics. You look bad to any educated readers who might have otherwise been interested in a scientific approach to martial arts.

And, if you don't apply basic scientific knowledge and critical thinking to some of the claims you're making, you risk making really bad mistakes. Maybe you'll focus too much on retracting techniques (thinking you can actually outrace reaction forces!) and rob your strikes of power they could really use (there's a good reason to retract strikes quickly, but pulling your fist back fast doesn't make the punch harder, it just makes your arm harder to grab after the punch).

There is some interesting stuff elsewhere in that book, but it's really hard for me to take it seriously, especially the things that aren't obviously true, because the author has established a propensity for making really bad basic errors.

I promise I will not spend the bulk of my posts here being curmudgeonly!

Train hard. Osu.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Longevity: Superhumans vs. CRONies

There are, broadly speaking, two very different paradigms, or approaches, to longevity.  Or, you could say, approaches to longevity can be split into one of two different general camps. I'm going to roughly lay out both of them, but please remember, both camps represent a set of philosophies - not every researcher or doctor or longevity enthusiast who supports either side is saying exactly the same thing; there's variation within each group both on exactly what people are supposed to be doing and the reasoning or explanations about why they should be doing it.

CRON: Caloric Restriction, Optimal Nutrition

The first, in the sense of being more popular and better known in the popular media, is CRON, or Caloric Restriction/Optimal Nutrition. People who follow CRON are sometimes called CRONies,

The CRON paradigm is, at its most basic, that humans can achieve greater longevity by restricting caloric intake below what is considered maintenance levels. The CRON approach is almost always constant - that is, CRONies will find their basic caloric needs, then restrict themselves to some number of calories between 15% and 40% LESS than that number, forever. They believe that doing so will increase their maximum lifespan, and presumably their average lifespan (in other words, CRONies tend to think that consuming so few calories, forever, will help them live longer, at least longer than the average person and possibly longer than even very long lived 'normal' people).

In the earlier days CRON was really CR - focusing on Caloric Restriction - but nowadays most proponents of this lifestyle are careful to emphasize optimizing nutrition. After all, if you eat many fewer calories than you need each day, that means you have to eat less food overall, so you have to be extra careful that the food you DO eat has a high nutritional value, so you don't introduce nutritional deficiencies that might increase chance of disease or degeneration, counteracting the benefits of plain CR.

Reasons to think that CRON does, in fact, work:

The CRON plan is based on some very solid science. In a large variety of lab animals, like worms and mice, controlled studies have shown that chronic CR (caloric restriction that lasts the animal's entire adult life) extends average and maximum lifespan. I don't mean to shortchange the importance of this evidence by making this list so few words - it's exceedingly relevant that in many living things, CRON (or, more specifically, CR) increases lifespan.

The general idea is that CRON extends lifespan using one or more mechanisms that can be loosely grouped like this:

  1. Prevent the damage that seems to cause aging by slowing the metabolism and slowing activity, which should slow the production, for example, of reactive oxygen species or free radicals.
  2. Prevent or slow the processes that might contribute to cancer formation by reducing the signalling that activates them (for example, high protein activates mTor pathway, which might increase cancer growth; to prevent that, eat relatively little protein). In other words, prevent growth and growth promoting mechanisms.
  3. Engage the body's catabolic 'cleanup' mechanisms (like autophagy) that remove old cells and damaged proteins by mimicking a famine state.

Reasons to Doubt that CRON works:

  • CRON isn't really proven in humans, or even well studied in primates, because longevity studies in long lived animals is really, really time consuming. Just think - it would take 100 years to do a really good CRON study, and that means you'd have to find a test population willing to half starve themselves for 100 years. This same criticism goes for every other longevity program, of course.
  • CR is hard to do. It's physically very demanding (try staying on a strict diet for the rest of your life - if it were easy, we wouldn't have an obesity epidemic in the first world). You get cold, irritable, thin, listless, and so forth. A common joke about CRON is that it may not work, but it certainly seems to, because the suffering makes it feel like you're living longer. So the chances of finding people who can stick to CRON in the numbers you'd need for a valid study are really small.
  • Nobody knows exactly why CRON works in smaller animals. One popular study stated 400 hypotheses about why CRON works. The truth is that the key to CRON's success might be in any one or any combination of those 400 hypotheses. Maybe it's reduced oxidative stress from reduced basal metabolic rate. Or increase in autophagy. Or an increase in protein recycling caused by chronically limited protein intake. Or a huge slowdown in mTOR activation. The fact that we don't know why CRON works in animals makes it very hard to study why it might or might not work in humans - if we knew it was mTOR deactivation, we might measure that in a shorter term study. But we don't.
  • CRON seems quite antithetical to many quality of life markers that people who want to age well are concerned about. A big reason many aged people have poor quality of life is related to sarcopenia (reduced muscle mass). Chronically restricting calories is not a good way to preserve, let alone increase, muscle mass as one ages, in two ways. First, reducing calories encourages the body to burn muscle tissue directly. Second, reducing calories reduces activity levels, and it is activity which causes the body to retain and increase muscle mass. Living longer, but being either too weak to get out of a chair or at least finding it hard to do so, might not be a very high quality of life.
Basically, CRON is all about reducing calories, increasing catabolism (breakdown of tissues), reducing metabolic rate, slowing biological processes that might contribute to aging, all in an attempt to increase the deleterious effects of time on the body. It's not eas

Is there another option?

The Superhuman Paradigm

I take the name of this paradigm from Carl Lenore, host of a radio program called Superhuman Radio. Carl is the person from whom I took the core ideas of what I'm calling the Superhuman Longevity Paradigm, but I'm not saying he's the first or only person to propose them, only that he's my personal source for the idea. Also, I find Carl's politics abhorrent, to the point where I think if we met we'd end up punching each other, so please don't think that I'm in Carl's corner generally. But I find his stance on longevity very interesting, and very different from CRON.

Roughly speaking, the Superhuman Paradigm is sort of opposite to the CRON paradigm.

The Superhuman Paradigm is focused on quality of life, not quantity. It's less about avoiding death by old age and more about avoiding the deleterious effects of aging. It's about increasing physical capacity and restoring youthful abilities more than about slowing the deterioration of those abilities.

In the Superhuman Paradigm, it's great to live a long time, but the real goal is putting off for as long as possible the point where you are infirm, in a wheelchair, stuck in a nursing home. The Superhuman Paradigm isn't opposed to a long lifespan, but it's more interested in being physically vigorous and able for as long as possible. I should say that people invested in this paradigm usually believe that this lifestyle will ALSO increase lifespan, but that isn't the sole driving factor.

How does the Superhuman Paradigm work?

The Superhuman Paradigm is focused on building those physical qualities that usually deteriorate with aging. For examples: strength, muscle mass, bone density, power output, maximum heart rate, sex hormone levels, and glucose tolerance. How are those qualities increased? With increasing emphasis on the activities that we already know will improve those things. In other words, do the same things (roughly) that powerlifters or bodybuilders or Olympic weightlifters (or even crossfit athletes) do, but continue to do them as much as possible as aging continues (unlike traditional athletes, who transitioned from those activities to gentler training as they aged).

The Superhuman practitioners focus on lifting relatively heavy weights, often explosively. They eat a surplus of nutrients, especially protein, though careful not to increase bodyfat levels too much. They might engage in supplemental nutrition or medical interventions, like hormone replacement therapy, but the goal is to get closer to a young person's profile.

While the CRONie is eating 1500 kCal/day, the Superhuman is doubling that, spread across 6 meals, and banging out an hour of walking in the morning and a heavy deadlift session in the afternoon. While the CRONie is trying to minimize activity (with no choice, because you can't work out heavy in a high caloric deficit), the Superhuman is struggling to reach personal records in the heavy lifts.

Reasons to think Superhuman Plan does work:

There is indirect evidence to suggest that the Superhuman lifestyle will increase health and lifespan (but also indirect evidence that it won't). We know weight training increases bone density. We know that increased bone density is preventative for major breaks (like fractured hips). And we know that breaking a hip does bad things for your lifespan. But there isn't a lot of (or any) real data on the health or expected lifespans of 60 year olds who can deadlift 450 lbs.

Reasons to think the Superhuman Plan won't work:

Heavy weight training might not be sustainable for many decades, because of the wear and tear on the joints. There are certainly many people who have lifted heavy well into advanced age, but not entire populations of such people, so those who have done so might be genetic anomalies.

Of greater concern, the Superhuman plan is highly pro-anabolic - that is, you're doing many of the things that increase anabolic signalling in the body (like activating mTor and increasing IGF-1) both through diet (high protein and moderate to high carbohydrate), hormones (activities that increase anabolic hormones, and possible hormone supplementation), and exercise. And there is some indication that increasing anabolism might increase the rate of cancer formation or cancer growth or both. 

It is also unclear what the relationship is between some pro-anabolic signals and endothelial health. We know that people who abuse anabolic steroids (rasing androgenic levels in the body to superphysiological levels) increase their risk factors for some kinds of heart disease. Does that mean that stimulating anabolic hormones for decades, but keeping them in ranges that are normal for younger people, could have a similar effect? We aren't sure.

But Joe, what should I do? Which Paradigm is better?

It's probably obvious, but my heart lies with the Superhumans, not the CRONies. Living longer as a lethargic, weak, fragile person is not my idea of a goal worth pursuing. I am much more afraid of life as an invalid in a nursing home than I am of death.

However, and this is a fairly big 'however,' cancer is not fun, and dying young but leaving a jacked, muscular corpse is not my idea of a goal worth pursuing either.

Ideally, we could find some way to combine the benefits of both approaches. But this isn't a simple case of following both protocols - it's not as if one group was saying, "get enough sleep!" and the other group was saying, "take resveratrol supplements!" Then you could conceivably do both. But you can't reduce calories to 25% below maintenance and still lift heavy - it's just not physically possible.

A Shining Hope: The Sidekick Longevity Plan (intermittent fasting, maybe?)

The best hope we have for some lifestyle that could combine the benefits of CRON with Superhuman living is some kind of intermittent or periodic fasting.

What's the idea here?

Ideally, you could spend periods of time eating in a caloric surplus. You'd have loads of energy, and extra fuel in your system to support building lean muscle tissue and increasing bone density. You'd be strong, dense, and have a high physical capacity.

Then you'd spend periods of time eating less or no food at all. You'd be temporarily depleted, which should kick in the body's repair mechanisms, the same mechanisms that get rid of damaged proteins and cells, that clears small cancers from the body, that restore insulin sensitivity, and so on.

Yes, you'd probably lose some muscle while fasting, and promote some undesirable growth while feasting, but if you could get the proportions right, you could build or maintain muscle while still minimizing the risks of cancer growth. Or, get them wrong, and promote cancer while losing lean body mass.

Is this remotely feasible?

There is actually plenty of evidence that short term fasts promote mechanisms that prevent muscle loss - in other words, a short fast probably doesn't carve up as much muscle as people think (a fast often seems to really destroy muscle, because even a short fast will deplete glycogen levels, making your muscles look significantly smaller, but it's not real muscle tissue that's been burned off - once you take in surplus carbs again those glycogen stores are replaced within hours).

So how does this work?

A fast can mean:
  • No food at all (but plain water is fine, and maybe water with some flavoring - nobody really favors limiting fluid intake altogether); or
  • Significantly reduced food intake (think 60-80% below maintenance); or
  • Normal energy intake but highly reduced protein and/or carbohydrate intake (reduce protein to reduce mTor activation and induce autophagy; reduce carbs to reverse problems related to insulin overproduction).
Done for:
  • 14-20 hours daily most days (so you fast from the end of, say, dinner on one day through the beginning of lunch the next) - this is usually 'no food at all'; or
  • 24-36 hours at a time, once or twice per week - this is usually 'no food at all' or significantly reduced food; or
  • A 3-5 day fast repeated at most once per month, either full fast (be careful!) or reduced protein or ketogenic; or
  • Periods of time spent in ketosis each year - ketogenic diets are high in fat, low to moderate in protein, and very, very low in carbs. You can follow this diet indefinitely, but there are good reasons to think that spending a couple of weeks or a month every year or so might have some benefits, while staying in ketosis long term might have drawbacks.
There are some other protocols, but you get the idea.

What's the best one?

Sadly, I don't really know. My strongest hunch is that mixing things up is best. Try to do 16-20 hour fasts a few days a week, a 24 hour fast every 2 weeks, and go very low protein for a week once a year. The damage you'll do with a strategy like that is pretty minimal (as long as you don't use these fasts as an excuse to overeat when they're over).

Hopefully, as time goes on we'll get more research showing specifically how different fasting methodologies can impact different health markers more specifically.

Now; why do I call this the Sidekick Plan? Answer: because I can't turn down a chance to make a bad pun. Crony + superhero = sidekick. I am sorry.

Implementing the Sidekick Longevity Plan:

A few caveats:
  • If you're under a lot of stress (if your sympathetic nervous system is highly activated) then fasting is going to potentially be such a big stressor that it's going to negatively impact your health. How can you tell? Well, if after starting some trial fasts you feel anxious or jittery or find that you're not getting good quality sleep, you might want to ease back on the fasting.
  • The idea that the Sidekick Longevity Plan will actually improve your lifespan or your health is not well supported by science. It's a good guess, based on lots of disparate pieces of data. The fact is, there is almost no good direct science on this, or almost any other, plan for increasing longevity. We're all just guessing (but they're educated guesses).
  • Monitor your lean body mass and overall body mass carefully. If you're losing muscle, then you're fasting too often or eating too little during non-fasting periods. The goal here is to maintain a lot of excess muscle so that as you age, any incidents that occur (accidents, illness, etc.) don't deteriorate your body to the point that you're incapacitated. The goal is to be able to get really sick, lose 30 lb. in the hospital, and still come out able to deadlift one and a half times your bodyweight.
  • If you're sick, acutely or chronically, start fasting only under a physician's care. Especially if you have some kind of metabolic illness.
  • Pregnant or nursing? Don't fast. It's possible that pregnant or nursing moms can fast safely under certain situations, but we aren't sure, and to be honest that research is NEVER going to get done. And the cost benefit ratio here is terrible. 
Now, if you've decided to try fasting, there are plenty of resources around (google intermittent fasting). There are many different plans - I've tried lots of them.

I recommend starting with a 16 or 20 hour fast. Have a solid dinner, finishing, let's say, at 8PM. Eat no food before bed. Skip breakfast the next day. Eat lunch around noon. Congratulations - that's a 16 hour fast. If you can eat a late lunch or skip lunch altogether, you can push that to 20 hours.

Keep an eye out for jittery feelings and poor sleep. If you're overstressing yourself you're probably not doing your body any good.

Plan your fasts to avoid being around your heavy workouts. For example, if you hit the weights hard on Tuesday and Friday morning, you should eat normally Monday and Wednesday dinner and Tuesday and Friday all day. If you want do do a 36 hour fast, do it Sunday, so you have Saturday to recover from Friday's workout and Monday to reload for Tuesday's. If you do a are doing some 20 hour fasts, do them Wednesday and Sunday. So don't hit the weights hard Tuesday morning, then come home and NOT eat. Your goal is to get whatever calories your do eat into muscle tissue - which means focusing your food intake into time periods just before and for a while after your workout.

Lastly, keep your eyes out on the research. shorter fasts (16-20 hours) seem useful for increasing insulin resistance and weight loss. Longer fasts, either total fasts or simply low-protein fasts, seem to be needed to get the cancer fighting benefits. But all of this is very speculative, at least for now.

On ANY calorie reduced plan - CRON or Sidekick - you should probably be extra careful to eat nutrient dense food. That is, focus on foods that have a lot of micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals) and the critical macronutrients (Omega 3s like DHA and EPA, high quality animal protein, monounsaturated fats, fiber). That's the 'ON' in CRON. When you're in a large caloric surplus, you're just eating a lot of food, even if the food is slightly lower in quality you're still likely to get the nutrients you want. The less you eat, the more particular you have to be about what you're eating.

NEVER RESTRICT WATER. "Drying out" can make you look leaner, but there are NO positive health effects to dehydration (that I'm aware of) and NO evidence that dehydration could complement any of the beneficial mechanisms of fasting. Fasting is very safe - unless you're a Type I diabetic taking exogenous insulin, skipping a few meals or a few days of meals will NOT kill you - but dehydration is NOT SAFE.

For the Martial Artists:

Obviously, CRON is a bad choice if you care at all about physical or athletic performance. Sustained caloric deficits do NOT work with hard training. 

But the Sidekick Lifestyle can work with martial arts. Plan your fasts to be on rest days, make sure you aren't losing muscle mass, and train during times when you're getting in plenty of fuel.

For the CRONies, Superhumans, and Sidekicks alike: EVERYONE DO THIS

The basic tenets of CRON and Superhuman and Sidekick lifestyles are at odds, but there are many factors that seem to contribute to extending lifespan that we should probably all be doing. For examples, in no particular order, of lifestyle tips that seem to coincide with long lifespan and with health:
  • Get enough sleep, primarily at night.
  • Get adequate sunlight exposure.
  • Do lots of socializing.
  • Reduce stress (yoga, meditation, whatever).


Nobody has great direct evidence supporting any particular plan for living a very, very long time. There are two approaches that represent a best guess, based on what works to increase longevity in animals and based on ways to improve health indicators that are indirectly related to lifespan. One is to restrict calories dramatically. The other is to increase calories, combined with heavy, tissue building exercise. A third approach that might provide benefits of each of these other plans is to alternate periods of caloric surplus and heavy training with periods of caloric deficit. I call this the Sidekick Plan, because I can't resist bad puns.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Artificial Sweeteners and You (a cautionary tale about science)

Read, or maybe skim, this article. It's long but really interesting.

I"ll give you the lowdown:

A very large meta-analysis was published about the impact of artificial sweeteners on bodyweight.

Early media attention was highly inflammatory, with headlines like, "Consuming food and drink containing artificial sweeteners could lead to weight gain and heighten risk of suffering from health issues including diabetes…"

Actually carefully reading the paper indicated not only that the paper did NOT show what that headline said it showed, but that, in fact, in most of the studies, those who consumed artificial sweeteners lost as much or more weight than those in control groups.

Additionally, some of the studies were looking at artificial sweeteners in ways that nobody cares about. For example, one study had test subjects taking stevia in a pill. Do you care if stevia pills will help you lose weight (well, you might if it worked). No! You (we) want to know if drinking sweetened beverages in place of sugar containing beverages will help us lose weight. We want to know if Diet Coke will kill us or not (well, I care about Pepsi Max, because that is my favorite soda in the world, but Diet Coke is the more famous example.)

You might be the sort of person who is bombarded with scare articles and facebook posts about how aspartame causes cancer and all sorts of other nonsense. Let me sum it all up for you.

If any artificial sweeteners were VERY BAD, the way smoking cigarettes, for example, is VERY BAD, we'd know. Tons of studies have been done, and rarely do they show much of any negative health impact for pretty much any artificial sweeteners on the market. Even saccharin was only dangerous when fed to mice in truly ridiculous doses (it was the equivalent of a human taking 1,000 packets a day of saccharin, which nobody was doing).

Is water better for you than Diet Coke? Common sense says: Probably yes! But how bad for you is Diet Coke ? Common sense says: Probably only a little bit, at most!

So you have to slip into the second order question: how much do you enjoy your diet soda? If consuming some diet soda is a cornerstone of your happiness, you're probably better off drinking some. If you can take it or leave it, you're better off leaving it.

I personally have tried to cut back on my diet soda consumption. But I'll tell you, when I'm having a difficult time in life and I'm slipping towards food-binging behavior, I'll often circumvent the binges by pounding back a liter of Pepsi Max.

Is drinking a liter of Pepsi Max good for me? Probably not. But is it better than eating an entire pizza by myself, or a pint of Ben & Jerries? Almost certainly yes.

Diet soda is slightly bad for you. If it were very bad, we'd have people dropping dead left and right of aspartame related illnesses (the stuff has been widely used for over 30 years). That just isn't happening. 

When confronted with things that are slightly bad, you have to make smart decisions - how much energy/ willpower/ suffering will it take to cut this thing out of your life? How much willpower/ mental energy do you have to spare?

And if you're interested in some careful analysis of published research, and a careful consideration of the methodology involved, read the article at the top of this post. It's very well done.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Strength Training 201: Dan John's 25 Rep Scheme

Suppose you are a person who wants to get stronger and build some muscle, but are not an elite level powerlifter, Olympic lifter, or even a professional athlete. Where should you start? What weights should you choose? What set and rep scheme? If you go look around, you can find thousands of pages about the best rep schemes and loading, each defended with a religious ferocity by its proponents. Where to start?

I got my answer from Dan John.

[First, a little bit about Dan John - skip to "The Workout" below if you don't care.

Dan John is a strength coach who has gotten quite famous off of seminars, his blog, and his books. It's a little hard to describe his appeal without making him seem simple (which he isn't), but really he has an uncanny knack for getting to the most important bits of whatever he's talking about and looking past the peripheral details. He's the ultimate 'big rocks' kind of guy, which is perfect for 90% of all trainees (basically, if you're an elite athlete, you're going to benefit from some more sophisticated programming, but almost none of us are elite athletes, and Dan John's programs are going to more than do the job.

He's also a hell of a nice guy - I've never met him, but I have listened to him talk for at least 20 hours on various podcasts, and I am a keen judge of character.]

The Workout:

In this blog post Dan John recommends a minimalist approach that is surprisingly easy to follow AND effective. If you don't want to read it, here's my summary:

  • Warm up.
  • For each exercise, pick a load and do 25 total reps (this number is not magical - if you really want to do 23 or 27 you can. But don't; do 25).
  • Each set should be hard but not burst a blood vessel hard.
  • If you do 25 reps in 2 sets, the weight is too light. If it takes you more than 6, the weight is too heavy. Next workout, respond accordingly (either use more weight or pick a harder version of the exercise).
  • If one workout it takes you more sets to get to 25 then the previous, you might need extra rest or to lighten the load a bit. Use your judgment.
That's kind of it.

The Exercises:

Which exercises should you pick? Dan didn't address it in that post, but there are some standard ways to pick your exercises. Basically, you're going to pick from a set of categories, and WHICH exercises you pick will depend on what you have access to, equipment-wise, and what you prefer.

Basically, there are 7 categories (different authors organize these differently, but this is the basic idea):

Vertical Push: You push a load above your head. Handstands, handstand pushups, dumbbell overhead presses, kettlebell overhead presses, Barbell military press, jerks, and so forth.

Horizontal Push: You push a load forward from your chest. Bench press, push up, one arm pushup, pushup with weighted vest, Dumbbell bench press, some kind of bench press machine.

Vertical Pull: Pull something overhead towards your body. Pullup, chinup, lat bar pulldown.

Horizontal Pull: Pull something in front of you towards your body. Rows, one arm rows, anything with the word 'row' in it.

Hinge: Lower body exercise where the focus is on movement at the hip, not the knee (the knees often do flex and extend, but they contribute less than in a squat). Deadlift, swing, hip thrust.

Squat: Different from the hinge because more of the work comes from the knees (though the hips do flex and extend). Squats, goblet squats, one legged squats, pistols, leg press... it's a long list.

Beach and accessory exercises: Curls, overhead tricep extensions, crunches. Anything you do to attract the opposite sex, or to hit some specific weakness (I use the hip adductor and abductor machines, but that's for kicking specifically).

Beach exercises are always optional. If you can, pick one exercise from each of the first 6 categories. If you are short on time, pick just one push, one pull, and one hinge/squat. Then, the next workout, switch (so if on Monday you did vertical push, on Thursday do horizontal push, and so on).

The Circuit:

There are roughly 2 ways to arrange the exercises. You can do all 25 reps of one exercise before moving on, or you can superset (or complex) the exercises. Suppose you're doing dumbbell presses, pushups, pullups, TRX rows, goblet squats, and kettlebell swings. You could do all the presses, then all the pushups, then all the pullups, and so on. OR you could alternate - either do some presses, then some pullups, then back to presses until both are done, then do the same with pushups and TRX rows, OR even circuit train - do a few reps of each exercise, back to back, then start again with the first one, until you hit 25 on them all.

The more you mix up the exercises, the greater the conditioning demand, the less the strength demand.

If you make a giant circuit out of this, you're going to be breathing very hard and getting very fatigued, and you won't be able to do as much strength work. So if you want some strength gains, and you want to get some conditioning, go right ahead. If you want mostly strength and hypertrophy, DON'T do that. Generally, if you can, do your strength work and conditioning separately, but if you just don't have time for more workouts, you can m ix them like this.

Weekly/Monthly Planning:

You should probably try to do this at least twice a week. Three times would be great, once a week is sort of iffy, depending on your training level. If you're squatting 400 lbs. for 25 reps, once a week is plenty. If you're swinging the pink kettlebell, you can go 3/week.

You can get as fancy as you want periodizing this routine, but we're trying to stay minimalist. Every 7th week or so, take a rest week - either use much lighter loads for the same workout, or don't do any weight training (don't do NO movement for a week, light exercise is better than complete rest for recovery). And no, there's nothing magic about every 7th week.

Once you've done this workout a few times, tune it to how you feel that day. If you're really energized, use higher weights. If you're really lagging, use lighter weights. Make sure your workouts are hard more often than not - if you're lagging most of the time, you need to address those issues, not just push light weights.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Poop Doping: Gut Bacteria: Resistant Starch, Full Fecal Transplants, and why "you're full of shit" isn't an insult

Fecal transplants for sports performance are in the news again (this was one of those topics that has been talked about as a future possibility, but not actually tested in the field, for a while). Google 'poop doping' and 'cycling' for links. In this case, an amateur competitive cyclist got a fecal transplant from a high level competitor. Afterwards, she saw her training improve, greatly improved her recovery, and saw general improvements in her health.

At the same time, you can find articles in places like gizmodo telling you that no, fecal transplants won't make you a better athlete, because the people who write for gizmodo don't understand the difference between absence of evidence and evidence of absence.

The theory: What's this all about? 

Your intestines are full of bacteria. That is why it's important to wash your hands after using the bathroom. Not just one strain of bacteria, either - everybody has a lot of different strains, in different proportions, living in their intestines. These bacteria help break down certain foods, produce chemicals that can get into your bloodstream and affect your health (butyric acid, branched chain amino acids. lots of others), and seem to impact your health in lots of other ways that are somewhat mysterious (impact insulin resistance, affect mood, influence the immune system, impact bodyfat levels, and so on).

Not all of these bacteria do the same thing. Some are better at digesting some fibers than others. Some do generally good things for you, some do generally bad things for you (things that detract from your health).

The most direct way to change your intestinal bacteria (also called your 'gut flora,' which sounds better) is two steps: 1) flush out your own, basically taking a bunch of magnesium citrate and cleaning out your bowels, and 2) re-colonizing with a different set of species (either different species altogether, or just different ratios of the same strains of bacteria). Where would you get a replacement colony (see what I did there? colon? colony?) From the gut of a healthy person. The process is exactly as disgusting as you think.

Do we know for sure this will work?

What parts of this plan are supported by science? Actually, quite a bit, but not all of it.

We know (as in, have extremely solid scientific evidence) that gut bacteria can massively influence various things in rats. Scientists have done fecal transplants on obese rats and they got leaner, among many other similar experiments.

We know that the gut bacteria in healthy/lean/athletically advanced people are not the same as in sick/obese/athletically disadvantaged people.

We know that, for example, being insulin sensitive will make you a better martial artists or cyclist or whatever, even if only a little bit.

What do the naysayers say?

Why wouldn't this work? Naysayers argue that, while healthy/fit people have different gut flora than sick/unfit people, this might be an effect, not a cause. Maybe elite cyclists have different gut bacteria because of the lifestyle that made them elite, and the bacteria changes are just a side effect.

They may be right, but there are a lot of studies done on humans where various protocols are used to change gut flora that lead to changes in health markers. None of them have been done on cycling performance, but it seems very reasonable to think that some change in immune function or insulin sensitivity would be likely to improve performance, even if only a little bit.

Naysayers also argue that the helpfulness of a particular colony of bacteria (the strains and proportions of each strain) might be very specific to an individual - maybe the gut bacteria that make Dave a great cyclist wouldn't work for Dennis, because of some peculiarity of either Dave's or Dennis' physiology.

There are potential complications and downsides to this sort of treatment. By definition, fecal matter isn't sterile. Importing someone else's bacteria into your body might make you sick - especially if your immune system isn't up to snuff.

What should I do?

Let's be clear: nobody really knows just how much any particular person might gain, if anything, from changing their gut bacteria.

And that's a big part of the problem.

It's a good bet, in my opinion, that swapping out your gut flora for those of, for example, a high level athlete, would be good for you. People who tend towards obesity, poor immune function, bad insulin resistance, and compromised digestion don't usually end up at the top of the athletic pyramid. There's a really good chance that your average Olympic athlete has an above averagely good gut biome.

But that's a pretty shaky foundation to build on. If you're sickly, generally feel like crap, and are a well below average performer in many physical areas, and other avenues of traditional medical intervention haven't worked for you, this might be something to explore. You don't have as much to lose. But if you're generally doing okay, getting a fecal transplant from the UFC Featherweight Champion (Max Holloway, can I have some of your poop?) is probably not warranted. We just don't know if everyone benefits from the same bacteria, how long the effect would last (how long before my super Max Holloway colon returns to my current biome, given my lifestyle and eating habits?), or what negative effects there might be.

Having said that, it is very, very possible that in a few more years researchers will understand these variables a lot better. There might even be better ways to change your gut biome (better probiotics!)

You can do some things to change your gut flora right now that aren't nearly as radical as a fecal transplant. To be honest, any change in your diet is going to affect your gut flora - consuming different amounts or different types of fiber will feed the different strains better or worse, changing the composition of your gut biome. BUT nobody, as far as I can tell (and I've looked), fully understands which fibers feed which bacteria to get which specific desired (or undesired) result. Will eating raw potato starch result in a beneficial shift in your gut biome? Maybe. But if you look at the work of the people suggesting that, there are holes in their evidence. Like, there's a jump from "this fiber feeds gut bacteria!" to "bacteria are good for you!" without a lot of specifics about "this fiber feeds these bacteria more than these other ones, and having more of these and fewer of those will make you healthier."

Without knowing all the specifics, we can do a sort of "good enough for now" workaround: look at healthy populations, groups of very healthy people, and see if there are any commonalities in their diet, because there's a good chance that they're feeding their gut bacteria in a way that contributes to a positive gut biome. What do we see? Lots of vegetable intake, not a lot of processed foods. In other words, good amounts of fiber from a variety of natural plant sources (sorry, not orange metamucil).

The takehome:

Your gut bacteria are super important. Some strains are better for you than others, and in different amounts. It's very unclear exactly how to make sure you are supporting the good bacteria and interfering with the bad ones. BUT you're probably safe eating lots of fiber, from a variety of whole food sources, because there are huge populations of people who eat like that who seem to have, at the very least, not-bad gut biomes.

ALSO this looks a LOT like an area where, it's not that we have good reason to think that fecal transplants won't work, but we have strong reasons to think that they should, but probably not enough evidence to justify running out and pumping ourselves full of someone else's shit. So instead of filing this away as "probable hoax," file it away under "promising idea, wait for more work to be done."


Thursday, June 22, 2017

Culture Vs. Technique: Dojo Qualities

I was listening to a podcast (Iron Radio) recently and the hosts were discussing the Westside Barbell Club.

Westside Barbell is a fascinating place because the people who train there have set an astounding number of powerlifting world records in the last couple of decades. And it's not as if they're recruiting top talent and paying them, either - there has been almost no money in powerlifting, basically ever, and none of these guys have gotten rich off of their ability to bench, squat, or deadlift.

Westside Barbell is famous for its head coach, Louie Simmons, and the method he uses to train the athletes there, which is usually just called the Westside Method. He teaches technique (a particular way to squat, bench, and deadlift), and prescribes a fairly specific method of training. The lifters at Westside tend to do similar exercises, periodized similar ways, with similar accessory lifts. And since there are so many strong, strong people training there, the atmosphere is supposed to be amazing. For competitive people, training alongside the strongest people in the world is quite stimulating. And they all get phenomenally strong.

The discussion on this particular episode centered on the reason why Westside lifters are so strong. And the question boils down this: is the success of the lifters at Westside due to Louie's system, to the culture or training atmosphere, or both?

There is never going to be a clear cut answer, of course - nobody is going to do a study and prove that the success of Louie's lifters is 62% the system and 38% the culture. Nevertheless, it's a really interesting thing to think about.

Westside lifters are the most successful powerlifters in the world. Does that prove that their system is the best? Well, I think it's strong evidence that the system is at least very good. But there might be some guy in some garage somewhere who offers better training and technical programs than you can get at Westside, but maybe in a laid back atmospher. And maybe that imaginary coach just doesn't inspire his athletes to work hard the way they are inspired at Westside, which is why his guys aren't setting world records right and left.

Dojos are the same.

I think of every dojo (or dojang or gym or whatever) as having 2 different qualities: competence of technical instruction and culture.

Technical instruction is how good the teachers (and sometimes the other students) are at giving the right coaching cues at the right time to improve your technique the most. This is somewhat complex, and sometimes it depends on the student - I've had instructors who were great at teaching beginners, and other who were not as good with beginners but were really good at making the small corrections that would help very advanced students make progress (there are also instructors who can do both of those things!)

Culture is a little harder to define, but it's basically a description of the atmosphere in the school. It's a combination of the sort of things the instructor says and does to motivate you, how physically demanding the classes are, and the way the other students respond to those cues.

Culture is not simply better or worse. Some people respond to certain kinds of dojo cultures better than others. I've seen schools that are hyper competitive and aggressive. They engage in a lot of belitting speech (insulting anyone who lags behind or quits), usually do a lot of hard, violent sparring, and generally show disdain for those who are less physically competent. I'm not saying that culture is inherently bad, in fact for some people that is highly motivating. Some people will do best in those surroundings. Others, however, will be deflated, and respond better to a less antagonistic culture.

As a student, you need to figure out two things: how much technical support you need and what culture suits you best. If you're a beginner, you definitely need a lot of technical help. If you've been training for 20 years, you probably need less. Depending on how extroverted or introverted you are you'll probably benefit more or less from a really enthusiastic culture.

Keep in mind that a good, motivating culture (whatever that means to you) does not mean that the instructor is technically good, and a bad culture does not mean that the technical instruction is bad. These are really separate things, and some groups have one or the other or both (or neither).

The bottom line is this: as a martial arts student you need to figure out what your needs are, and make sure your class is filling those needs. If you're highly self motivated, you might not care so much about the culture. If you're struggling to get through workouts, you might need more of a 'rah-rah' atmosphere.

If you're very lucky, you'll find a technically great group that also has a strong, spirited culture that motivates you and keeps you excited to train. That's the dream! Enjoy it.