Exercise and Life

(Before starting, I’ll note that I had my friend, and fitness trainer Mike Bronco of Bronco’s Gym and the book Man School go over this to make sure I didn’t advise something utterly wrong. Any mistakes made here are utterly mine.)

This post is a change of pace. Usually I talk tech, the computers and stuff I use, and sometimes even philosophy. I like to make things better for people, and I’ve chosen a certain focus. I don’t wander off of it that often because I’m not planning on becoming an expert 3D modeler, a professional illustrator, or anything else that would normally cause me to post on a completely divergent topic. 

Say, as an exercise coach.

Yet, I do have an interest in my own health, and knowing and pushing your body is part and parcel of developing the will and focus to push your mind, and to not be pushed around in turn, physically and mentally. The body and the mind are inseparable. Learning to better focus and ground one, to ignore distractions, and to make it do what you need it to do even as it protests, makes you better able to do the same for the other.

As a result, over the last few years I decided to make a focused attempt to regain my physical conditioning. I’m older, and never quite expect to achieve the physique I had in my early Navy days, but dammit, I wanted to be better.

One of my friends, Mike Bronco,  is a fitness coach with a ton of experience, and I started working out with him and several other guys out of his garage on a weekly basis. I learned a lot there. I also dug up other sources that I cross-checked, and found reputable. Depending on exactly how fit you want to be, and how intensely you wish to improve, and how much logging you want to do, there are several paths you can take that all work, but they boil down to some simple rules. 

1) It has to be sustainable. Sure, as you get healthier and stronger you may be able to lift more, bike further, etc., but if it’s not something you can find time in your schedule for at least several times a week for the forseeable future because it requires time or gear you do not have regular access to… forget it.

2) It has to be enjoyable (and therefore self-motivating).  But there’s a catch here:  Is it enjoyable for the sake of the movement itself, or, for the results it provides?

If it’s for the results – it won’t work. Stu Mittleman, one of the world’s leading coaches says, “the running itself is the reward – not what the running gives you.”

It has to be joy driven, not reward driven. I love to swim, I love to skate, I hate to run. Without a drill sergeant hanging around day in and day out as in boot camp, you’ll never get me fit by running. I’ll quit. The only time I ever ran regularly was so I could prepare for the Cooper River bridge run – and then I quit immediately after. Working 12-hour shifts in Norfolk I took precious time off to spend more than an hour on the boardwalk rollerblading almost every single day.

3) You don’t need anything fancy. A cheap workbench or exercise mat, and gravity exercises are an excellent place to start. A pull-up bar, and light weights can readily be added, and the collection of weights can be easily and cheaply expanded through second-hand stores as you need them.

4) Do more, but not always.  What? Shouldn’t you try to do more than last time. More reps, more weight, but always try to push a little further. You’re doing this for self improvement, right?

Well, yes. You want to improve. You need to keep pushing. But not. every. workout.

As Mike told me –  DON’T push yourself every time to do more than the last time.  Olympians spend 80% of their time doing the same or even less than last time out.  Only 20% of their work is actually beyond current limits (even less for highly trained athletes).  The reason is simple:  You get stronger when you rest and you can’t sustain high intensity for long periods of time.  The folks who push constantly tend to be injured quite a bit, and eventually burnout and quit altogether.

I’ll note in all honesty that when I originally asked Mike for input I’d said almost the opposite here – always do more – thinking that the following rule, “Don’t overdo it” would be enough.

The thing is, the lower intensity has a purpose. One – you’re already doing it for the sheer joy of it. You’re still operating your body at or near the limits to “keep in practice.” You’re mentally getting comfortable with the new boundaries, and better preparing yourself for pushing them. 

It’s also about form. And stability. it’s about the mind mastering the body.

Why do squats with no weight or small weights instead of something near your max? Because doing it that way allows you to focus on your form. How you move your body. How you brace yourself. Your position. Where the strength flows.

Ditto when you run. Or skate. When you’re not at your limits, you can practice your form. To be more efficient. To be more effective.

Or curls – to work on how your holding and moving the weight rather than expending all of your energy simply lifting it.

For that matter, one of the reasons to do single-leg squats is not to make you stronger. You can effectively squat even less than you think – and a large part of the reason why is because your body is expending a lot more of it’s effort to simply keep you stable.

When you return to doing full, regular squats, you’ll find that you can lift more, because you’ve become more stable.

5) Don’t overdo it either. Didn’t I just say that? Well, yes. It’s important enough to repeat as its own rule. Your body needs time to heal. That is where you actually get stronger, and the workouts just force your body to rebuild. Heavy workouts every day don’t give your body that time, and make you burn out. Pushing too far past your limits simply injures you, and that wastes time and energy recovering just to get back to where you were.

6) When you’re pushing yourself, don’t just work for “x’ reps. If you do ten, and you can comfortably do ten, then you’re not doing enough to force your body to rebuild and to become stronger. Push yourself to your limits. It helps to have friends to watch your back when you do this so that you don’t overdo it.

I told you it was important.

7) Accountability. Most people need this to really improve. Workout with friends, keep a log, do something to make sure you’re improving and not slacking off.

And don’t make it complicated. Whether you’re tracking your workouts or changing out backups, “complicated” means you stop doing it, unless you actually enjoy running the numbers (see Rule 2).

You also pick up other things. Over time you integrate them into a cohesive whole. All sorts of little things over the years, and even more bad information that I had to unlearn to distill into what I know today that made me wish I had good guidance “back then.”

High Intensity Interval Training

The most surprising thing I discovered, and only recently discovered the source of scientific backing for, was that unless you really, really, really want to be a marathon runner, you can literally get most of the cardio conditioning you could ever want simply by working on your strength, and with short series of intensive exercises instead of hour-long stints running, or on a cardio machine. 

As described in the Wiki article, the basic concept is that working for 30, 40, 60 or more minutes at a fairly steady pace is not the most time-effective way to improve cardio conditioning. Instead, short, intensive bursts of intense whole-body exercise, with short interspersed breaks, push your body further, and also give you better conditioning to apply bursts of strength and power since it also improves your body’s anaerobic capability as well.

It is very flexible. It can be done with any excercise that uses large muscle groups: squats, sprints, “burpees”, etc. It can be done with weights ( I recommend without or very light at first) or with gravity alone. It can be done on various cardio machines – though as a practical matter treadmills take too long to change speeds readily. It is also easily logged. 

As mentioned in the Wiki, the basic protocol for the Tabata is simple: 20 seconds of maximal effort, followed by ten seconds of rest, repeated eight times. The total is four minutes. No cheating on the breaks. You should also warm up before, and cool down after. You can use a wall-clock with second hands, any number of gym timers, or one of the available iPhone and Android apps. There are other variants that are not quite as intense, but also effective, and all of them involve alternating fairly intense workouts with “down” periods.

It is very important to be careful with high-intensity intervals if you’re not already in basically OK shape already. A period of at least 6 weeks conditioning is paramount before anyone – especially those new to exercise – should do these high-intensity workouts. Walking is still without a doubt, the world’s best and most effective from of exercise.  It is natural for the body. Walks are fun! In the meantime, start working on your strength, which carries over to cardio a lot more than most people think it does – especially excercises that deal in large muscle groups.

Then, when you get started, instead of doing a strict Tabata, you can start by doing sprint – walks, or adding sprints to your jogs. There are also several other formats that don’t push the intensity anywhere near as high, but that start conditioning you to work at full output for more than a few seconds.

Remember. Rule 5. Don’t overdo it. If you’re doing it every day, you’re doing it wrong. Your body needs a day or two to heal. That’s where you actually get stronger. Not the workout itself. 

If you wish to log your performance, and all of your sets are really maximal effort, then the number of reps or distance covered for the last set is a convenient shortcut for logging your performance and fitness over time.

So as we near the end, you may notice what I have NOT told you.

I haven’t told you which exact exercises to do. There’s no magic combo. Even if there were room in this post, there are plenty of sources that illustrate the available options. Some gyms have weights, some gyms have machines. I prefer weights because of that whole stability thing – the real world doesn’t conveniently give you a brace anytime you have to move something. Some people like to run, some people like to swim.

It’s about what works, and what you enjoy.

As long as some exercises work on strength, some work on balance and stablity (karate and yoga are also good for that…), etc. You will be well rounded and overall “fit” – not just a muscled freak. Some of the excercises should let you establish a steady a rhythm – say running, swimming, or skating or walking – but some should be unpredictable. For example playing basketball, or cross-country running, or adding some footwork to your skating. 

It’s about having a fit life, and being prepared.

One more thing. There’s a rule 8.

8) Have fun!