Embracing the Delta (Pt. 1)

My time training, both myself and other people, has shown me how impressive the human body is. Further examples prove that the word ‘impressive’ doesn’t come close to describing our ability to endure physical chaos. Spend any amount of time researching Wim Hof, the Ice Man, and you will see this in one of the most spectacular examples of a person’s ability to adapt and overcome. Wim Hof has climbed Mount Everest and Mount Kilimanjaro in nothing but shorts and shoes, completely immersed himself in ice for an hour and 44 minutes (one of his 26 world records in related feats), and warded off illness (as further demonstrated under medical observation) through mindfulness and breathing techniques, as well as an uncanny mastery over his physiological systems. Most impressive yet, he has been wildly successful in teaching others his methods, allowing them to complete many of the endeavors he has undertaken himself, proving further that this ability to adapt, overcome, and embrace environmental conditions conventionally thought to be impossible,  isn’t just a genetic mutation, but a learnable skill.

This is often hard to accept due to the self-satisfying mindset that there are limitations to our existence and a misunderstanding of the role comfort plays in life. The reality of our potential is often obscured by a population of increasingly sedentary beings creating the allusion that the average person is the ‘normal person’, and those few extraordinary people, the ones climbing mountains and running hundreds of miles, are merely outliers; genetic mutations in a population unable to touch their own toes. Take any group of 1000 random people and only a small percentage of them can lift twice their own bodyweight off the ground, run 20 miles, perform a proper bodyweight squat, execute a pull-up, things that are all reasonably achievable, but seem impossible to many who cannot.

I use Wim Hof to demonstrate a dramatic example of human adaptation, but what is it that makes his adaptations so dramatic? After all, his most impressive ability is not his physical achievements, but his success in preparing others for similar feats. Wim Hof has merely embraced a potential we all possess, but typically reserve unless chaotic circumstances force our hand. Stories of perseverance through physical extremes are prolific, but seem impossible when the consequences are less dire. On a smaller scale, when I have new clients and they are presented with workouts, many admit to me afterward that they wanted to quit several times, but the fear of embarrassment/failure/judgment pushed them through to the finish, replacing that fear with a level of confidence they use as motivation the next time around.  So why do so many people live in a decaying physical state when there is so much untapped potential lingering in our D.N.A.? Why do excuses and temporary comfort take precedent over a long and healthy life?

It’s easy to forget the truth of our existence; that we are animals. We may have disposed of our more primitive features, but we have not lost the ability to adapt and overcome stimuli, no matter how much comfort causes us to avoid it. This incredible adaptation, however, is a double edged sword. In the same way that a runner can adjust their bodies to the discomfort of running, teaching their body to adapt to the cardiovascular and endurance requirements, a cubicle dwelling office worker can adapt to the comfort of sitting all day, sheltered from fresh air and sunlight. Our bodies want to adapt to our environment. It’s why the notion of ‘practice’ is so prevalent in skill acquisition. We get better at the skills we practice, which, unfortunately, doesn’t just apply to the ‘good skills’.   If you sit for long periods of time indoors, your skin will pale, your muscles will atrophy and your brain will allocate chemical production to the process of sedentary living to best suit you for your current environment.  We get better at what we do most.

Without good stressors, the physical and mental events that challenge us, we are unlikely to continue towards growth. This is true of everything. Even within the exercise world, there is a constant need to assess and change programs to prevent the plateau effect that one mode of training will create. It’s not uncommon to see a chubby marathon runner, whose body has adapted to the sport and no longer needs as much caloric intake to fuel the movement. Therefore, in order to break the plateau, we must embrace the Delta in our lives and continue on the journey of health and happiness.

The Delta is the change, the journey between each destination. It’s where the feet hit the road and the work gets done. It’s the uncomfortable journey through untraveled land that takes us to the next beautiful landmark, so we can then regroup and embark on the next uncomfortable journey, increasing our capacity for happiness through the struggle of the unfamiliar. Learning new skills, breaking standard modes of operating (in a healthy way), are necessary in engaging the mind and the body, inspiring new adaptation when our bodies have adjusted to our old habits. A full, healthy life means embracing the Delta, never getting complacent with comfort, and, in doing so, finding a reason to get up each morning, a challenge to meet head on with each moment. And the beautiful part about embracing the Delta, is it never has to end. There will always be something new to learn, a new path to clear, and a new way to stimulate that complex organ in our skulls, so it doesn’t fall prey to the same atrophy that so often befalls the body when absent of a challenge.

No, Really. RIGHT NOW.

“If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Nothing you’ll read in this blog post may be new, flashy or unique. I know…not a great sell. So I’ll keep it short and try to assure you that, much like Kettlebell training, the beauty lies in the basics.

It’s difficult to preach the merits of goal setting without a microphone-equipped headset and the sickly sweet smell emitted by a ‘TV life coach’. That being said, there’s no way to deny the importance of goal setting, just as there‘s no way to deny the importance of light when groping around a dark room.

Distinct, coherent and, most importantly, achievable goals offer a definitive conduit for efficiently harnessing our efforts. Ask any successful entrepreneur, athlete, writer about their mindset prior to success and they are unlikely to answer with a detailed account of their meandering, unenthusiastic life and how it turned into an accidental spot on the New York Times best-seller list, Super Bowl championship, etc. The story may begin in such a way, but typically leads to an inciting moment, where their passions became pursuits.

So, first step: find a goal. Buy a house, lose weight, get stronger, get a raise. For the context of the blog, I will use getting stronger as the example from here on out and allow you to translate this to your own needs.

Second step: be specific. I want to be stronger. How much stronger and when? The clearer the goal, the higher your success rate will be. Say you want to deadlift 100 pounds more in 6 months. Excellent, now we have a destination.

Next step: calm down there, tough guy. Remember that part up top about achievable goals? I even put it in italics to make it stand out. I may want to deadlift 100 pounds in a month, but I won’t be dead-lifting anything if I’m in a full body cast watching daytime TV and wishing I hadn’t thrown every plate I could find on the bar for my first rep back in the gym. In essence, Rome wasn’t built in a day, something about a stream of water forming the Grand Canyon, and any other worn out proverb used to highlight perseverance through great undertakings bring us to the next point:

Make your timeline realistic. I’m not always, exactly, sure who I was six months ago, but I have a good idea of who I was yesterday. Five year, one year, six month goals are great for keeping a general focus, a determined mindset, but blueprints don’t build bridges. Laying a few stones every day is what gets the job done. So when pursuing your six month goal you need to break it down even further. What can I do this week? Maybe add another dead-lift day into the regiment. What can I do tomorrow? If I’ve lifted already, maybe I practice the movements, find supporting exercises, stretch and recover for the next training day. What can I do, right now? The “right nows” are the best duration for goal setting because they can be achieved instantly, allowing for all the self-praise and back-patting to commence! No barbell on your laptop, right now? That’s fine, grab a pen, paper, tablet. Start researching, writing and programming for the week ahead. Adding 5 pounds on that bar each week is a hell of a lot easier than adding a hundred after 6 months of lingering on that overall goal.

The last step, the most important step, is to terminate the negative stigma around failure.  Fearing failure will suffocate your goals before they even reach the front of your mind. If you’re not failing, in some aspect of your life, at some point in your life, you are not living a full life. The key is to allocate that failure where it is minimally destructive and maximally efficient. Failures are opportunities to observe, adapt and adjust; a natural vetting process by which to filter out the effective from the ineffective. I will go more into failure, the good and the bad, in the next blog post, but the take away is: failures will happen, be the one who profits not the one who perishes.

Simply put, without goals and without purpose, our actions, though sometimes effective, are ultimately a random series of events, leaving us to wonder why we continue to repeat our bad habits. If you still need a goal, you can use my life goal: be happy and live well a long time. Now you get to figure out the ten year, five year, six month, one week, and right now goals to get you there. And seriously, I really mean right now.

Stress is not just a Mind Killer

 

“Much of aging comes from a misunderstanding of the effect of comfort.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb
This blog post is a (dramatically) abbreviated collection of ideas featured, more eloquently, in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile. This is a personal favorite, an insightful blend of philosophy, health, economics and much more, portraying the benefits a moderate amount of chaos has on a healthy life. An Amazon link is included at the bottom of this article.

Your heart is racing.
Your ears are now bass drums as the beating resonates in your head and the periphery of your vision submits to a washed out gray, focusing your attention on what lies immediately in front of you. Long, yellowed teeth appear first, as a towering, prehistoric predator materializes with them. Sharpened stick in one hand and a cleared path behind you, you now have to choose: Fight or Flight.
Regardless of what option you choose, your brain has supplied your body with enough adrenaline to lift up a four-door sedan (we’ve all heard the story of the desperate mother), preparing you for a Herculean physical response.
Fast forward some thousands of years to modern day. The stick is a cellphone, the open path is a paved road, but instead of legs, you’re being propelled in an unnatural seated position, working the smallest of calf muscles on the pedal. There is no mammal now, but that doesn’t mean we are the top of the food chain. The predator has been replaced with ‘the boss’, ‘the deadline’, social obligations, and we can’t go around punching our social obligations and deadlines…
The stress-induced adrenaline response is vital for worst case scenario resolution, but is not a sustainable mode of operation in our bodies. Daily stress produces this same response and, over time, leads to high blood pressure, depression, and a myriad of physical ailments, amounting to a shorter, unhappy life; the very opposite of the ultimate purpose (spoken of in previous blogs) of living well for a long time.
There are a few ways to resolve this issue, the first being easier said than done: remove unhealthy stressors from your life. Unhealthy stressors are the “Chinese water torture” (excuse the culturally insensitive but easily identifiable moniker) of modern living. The stress of an unhealthy diet over time, unhappiness in the work place, unfulfilling or damaging social interactions, slowly chip away at our resolve and go long unnoticed due to their individual triviality, but are made deadly by their combined magnitude. Removing these stressors can be as easy (or as difficult) as finding a job that makes you happy rather than one that simply pays the bills. A happier job may even lesson expenses, as we tend to spend more on comfort when we are the least happy (flashy electronics, luxury cars, the latest fashion trends, comfort food). By saying ‘no’ to more, we can say ‘yes’ to the opportunities that give us more. Warren Buffet credits his success more to the options he turned down than the ones he embraced. There is a finite amount of time in the day, therefore smarter investments in that time will yield a disproportionally higher amount of success. Taleb outlines this “via Negativa” approach in Antifragile, assuring a life can be made better, easier, by removing the unhealthy instead of trying to add more good. Candy on a rotting apple is still a rotting apple, but by cutting the rot out first, you can then add the things that make it sweeter.
The next way to resolve damaging stress in our lives is done by adding good stressors, stressors that challenge the body and bring balance back to our system by introducing a small amount of chaos. One of the ways to do this, what I deliver to my clients, is to bring back a physical response to match the mental one. Not all stressors can be cut away via Negativa. You need to work to support yourself, your family, and your loved ones. And though not all family and friend time is met with overwhelming excitement and fulfillment, these obligations must be met to maintain balance. Therefore, we must stimulate the flight or fight response with a physical one, in an effort to compensate for the body’s expectation of exertion. Rigorous exercise for an hour or so, several times a week, challenges the body’s systems, making more efficient use of the stress hormones that would normally fester in an otherwise sedentary life. It is not uncommon to work a long day in the office, pelted by reports, coworkers’ needs and deadlines, motivated only by the foresight of a relaxing night and the comfort of the couch, when in actuality, the best complement to a stressful day (one being filled of many small stressors) is the body’s reaction to exercise (one prominent, healthy stressor). Dedicated, rigorous exercise (time in which you are breathing heavily and your muscles feel fatigued) mixed with a lifestyle of leisurely physical activity (hikes, walks, etc.) will make great advances in undoing the damage of bad stress and bring the body back to a normal balance. This, too, is easier said than done. There is a cruelty to our programming, a slippery slope where the less we exercise, the less we produce the chemicals that make us motivated to exercise. So, yes, there really is a chemical reason for that enthusiastic runner, crossfitter, boxer populating your Facebook feeds with their workout posts. Working out makes people feel happy, when we are happy we want to share that happiness with the world. Unfortunately, the inverse is also true.
Modernity and technology have offered health and happiness to many people. Humanity is at the apex of medical technology and information accessibility, but there are dangers that lie within an increasingly comfortable lifestyle. It is important not to let the crutch of the modern world atrophy (both literally and figuratively) our ability to support our own weight. It is important that we don’t confuse comfort with health and discomfort with decay, as, with many other aspects in life, finding the balance between both is where we find the best way to be happy and live well for a long time.

Click the link to purchase this little masterpiece:

Move often and live well

When I think about the strongest people historically, prior to conventional athleticism, I think of farmers, masons, carpenters, those who spent long days lifting materials, climbing scaffolding, carrying heavy weights over some distance, representing some of the (functionally) strongest individuals of the time period.

What the mason didn’t do was sit for 15 hours a day with a blocked out solid hour for some determined foundation building. This would be both a huge waste of time and a serious distraction from the primary goal, in this case, to build a strong foundation.  Now, the main goal for the mason may not be the same for all, and it’s certainly not mine. Given that I can only pour the water from my own well, I can only frame my life within the framework of my main goal and hope you can find some general synchronicity in your own: be happy and live a long time. But not just live a long time. I want to be happy and live well for a long time.  This means being able to support myself, financially, physically, mentally until my course has run. The foundation for succeeding in these objectives is health, and the foundation for health is movement.

Back to our mason.  A foundation constructed for one hour each day will eventually get built, but will never be as solid, as efficient, as structurally sound as the foundation built for multiple hours a day. Nor would it be reliable if built for 16 hours each day, if the mason breaks his back attempting these long hours. In the same respect, while an hour of exercise each day is far better than none at all, it still fails to undo multiple hours of sedentary living. Conversely, train hard all day and you will find your body unable to withstand the output, ultimately affecting the “be happy” part of the main goal and eventually the “live well” aspect too. Life requires a balance of stress and comfort, good stress with even better comfort as a result.

Not everyone has the luxury of the trainer, or the responsibility of the mason, to move all day. Many jobs require long periods of sitting, met only with longer periods of the same when one goes home, as the stress of work translates the emotional stress into a physical exhaustion. However, we can find ways to bring the physical back into the daily routine. There’s the obvious: take the stairs, park further away from the grocery store. These are great steps but get ignored due to their simplicity, in an age where we incorrectly translate complexity to efficiency. The less obvious (and more strenuous): ditch the snow blower and pick up the shovel, create a standing desk; sit less, stand more. Better still: take long walks on uneven terrain, replace your office meetings, inside family time, or afternoon relaxation with a leisurely walk with the result of finding yourself feeling better, moving better.  Long commute? Bring some grip trainers (yes, those silly, but effective, tools for strengthening the grip).  For anyone taking a kettlebell class, you know how valuable a strong grip is.  No access to a gym or weights? Some of my best workouts require no more than an 8×8 room and an assortment or pushups, planks, burpees, squats, lunges and mobility drills. Children learn the most from their parents, time with them could be spend practicing movement, playing active games, and you may find they have a lot to teach you about mobility. The playground doesn’t have to be just for the kids.

Our bodies are incredibly adaptive machines, highly susceptible to practice and routine. Make sure the habits you are practicing are the ones you want your body adapting to. If you practice sitting all day, movement will feel increasingly uncomfortable, but if you practice movement often, your body will adapt to movement and your mobility and health will stay with you as you age.  Most of my clients who want to get in shape, first have to learn how to move again, how to squat, get off the ground without use of their arms, bend at the waist without rounding the spine, all movements we do naturally from the time we are born but lose when they are not practiced.

Never stop moving and you will never have difficulty starting again. Never stop moving and have the fitness you were meant to possess, the fitness we are all born with, the fitness to be happy and live well for a long time.

Training for Training…

I remember learning to ride a bike. For weeks and months beforehand I sat in a chair in my room, moving my legs up and down, up and down, in a gentle ellipse, my hair dancing in the breeze of the fan in front of me (for enhanced real world simulation). And only after months and months of this endeavor, did I attempt to ride a bike. And it was perfect, I never made a mistake riding a bike for the rest of my life.
But not really…
I learned to ride a bike, like most everything else I’ve learned in life, from my father. He sat me on a shiny blue beauty, training wheels equipped, and sent me on my way. Once I was comfortable navigating the world on four wheels, the training wheels came off. After a scraped knee or two, I was actually riding a bike, no need for a real world simulation.
Cliché aside, Kettlebell training is no different from riding a bike. Kettlebell practice has its own version of training wheels (scaled exercises, movement progressions); no one should attempt to two-arm swing “the Beast” (48kg) on their first introduction to a bell.

The best way to become more proficient at a skill is to practice that skill. Running on a treadmill will not prepare you for Kettlebell training (and may actually make it worse), doing squats will not get you ready for swings (even if the muscle groups overlap), and sampling the plethora of weight machines at the gym won’t give you good form .
If I had to do a two-arm swing for every person that told me they are “trying to get in shape before starting Kettlebell training” you’d find me in a pool of my own sweat and disapproval, lacking the will and stamina to shake some sense into them.
My favorite clients are the ones who have never touched a weight their entire lives. They listen well, focus on form over reps, pick up the skills fast and are able to move on to the advanced strength, endurance, and mobility training the Kettlebell has to offer.
Therefore, the best way to get sustainable, functional strength/endurance/mobility is the Kettlebell. The best way to get better at the Kettlebell is to practice the Kettlebell. So find a good instructor, a light bell and find your strength today.