“Suddenly We Were Aspiring Gymnasts.”

Craig’s comment from a couple posts ago got me thinking. First the comment:

Interesting to see your followup comments about body weight exercise and injury. After reading the previous post, I looked at the GMB site and saw a lot of gymnastic looking stuff. My first thought was how rough some of those things can be on the shoulders. Shoulders are to gymnasts as low backs are to deadlifters, an endless source of worry.

Thanks Craig. First my original follow up:

I think the GMB guys would say 2 things: 1) They’re not gymnasts, in that they’re not even approaching things that actually count as a Gymnastic move until their level 2 programs. They blend multiple disciplines.

And 2) you have to factor the fact that gymnastics is a full-time job, wrecking the shoulders is a risk because they’re the lynchpin of the movement. It’s a volume issue, not necessarily a modality issue.

Effectively you’re making the inverse association that people make regarding Michael Phelps, swimming, and leanness. Neither are accurate.

I wanted to expand on that point a bit. First, GMB will tell you that they aren’t gymnasts. Sure they’re gymnast inspired, but they combine yoga, calisthenics, and low level gymnastics stuff into their programs. You can learn to do some pretty cool stuff, especially compared to just squatting a bunch of weight to impress gym junkies (if that’s your thing, cool).

But this speaks to a larger point: namely that the moves themselves are inherently dangerous. Some of them have the potential to be more problematic than the others, certainly. This is the cost/benefit analysis that you make when doing anything. For example I want the skill of a bent arm stand, so I accept the increased risk of, say, busting my face compared to a standing press.

It’s also worth noting that the reason gymnasts shoulders are an endless source of worry precisely because of the volume they work with. Twenty plus hours a week of skill work on top of strength work would ruin most shoulders. Further, they’ve proven they can tolerate the volume if they’re at the Collegiate/Olympic level. The problem wasn’t the mere presence of a “gymnastic move” but the volume of its use. The GMB programs might be 3 hours a week, tops, of moves that also include things that aren’t gymnastic in difficulty, again like yoga. As noted, it’s the inverse of people thinking that merely swimming will make them lean like Michael Phelps, not the fact that he’s swimming 8 hours a day at peak training.

But if I’m looking at the industry as a whole, there’s an element of at least including some amount of bodyweight training in routines, both because it’s damn fun, and it’s user friendly/cost effective. The title of this post is from Chris over at Conditioning Research when talking about Coach Sommer’s first articles and how “everyone” became “aspiring gymnasts.” Maybe not, but at least a few cool moves spice up the routine and gain some fun skills.

A Little Bad News/Good News

Remember how in my talk “Resistance Training, Brain Structure, and Brain Function,” I talked about how much of the evidence I was presenting was from my graduate research? I had submitted that paper for publication and was waiting to hear back.

Bad news: My paper was rejected!

Good news: It was rejected because not long prior to my submission, a very similar paper was published covering the very same subject. It’s super-thorough, diving deeper into many of, though not all of, the things I covered in my paper.

So 5 Taiwanese PhD’s versus me in a paper writing contest? I’d bet on them too!

So go here and click the “download now” link to read the whole thing.

It’s about the lifestyle, stupid.

Typical dietary dogmatist, hunkered down in their foxholes waiting to rush the next front.

BLAM! RUNRUNRUNRUNRUN!

That must get tiring, right? Playing “mythbuster,” building straw men to knock down, wearing your “I know nothing more than you” like a suit of armor.

I get it; I’ve been there. Really, this stuff isn’t that hard. If you’re on the bleeding edge of the BMI scale, you likely need some very specialized help. If you’re not, you don’t need daily mental masturbation about minutia that probably doesn’t make that much of a difference. Not in practice.

And that’s really it: things that can be done in the controlled lab environment are very rarely externally valid. Controlled meals and metabolic chambers? Nay. Metabolic carts and a perfectly timed bolus of amino acids? Nope. You get none of these, free-living human.

The fact of the matter is that the leanest, longest-lived cultures on Earth aren’t accounting for any of that crap!

A quick rundown, shall we?

The Aladema Study

The Blue Zones studies attempted to tease out a defacto longevity formula from the longest lived cultures on Earth. I’ll talk more about them in a minute, but if you back the longevity train up a bit further, you’ll find a researcher by the name of Lester Breslow. In 1965, Breslow started a study in Alameda county, California that examined the health habits of 6,928 people, with an eye toward 7 health habits he deemed most important (which is why the study is referred to as the “Alameda 7″). Their behavior was examined over intervals of up to 20 years and the data was parsed with quantitative analysis (which at the time didn’t happen with longevity studies). As a result, Breslow found that a 45 year old who followed at least 6 of the 7 habits had a life expectancy 11 years longer than that of a person who followed 3 or fewer. And these were good, strong, functional years free of major disease or complication, because what does it matter that you live longer if you can’t do anything with it?

What were the habits? Here’s his original list of the Alameda 7:

  1. Avoiding Smoking
  2. Exercising regularly
  3. Maintaining a healthy body weight
  4. Sleeping 7 to 8 hours per night
  5. Limiting consumption of alcoholic drinks
  6. Eating Breakfast
  7. Avoiding snacking between meals.

…That’s it. You were expecting some sort of lifestyle calculus? Something only the “chosen few” could accomplish? There’s nothing sexy here and that’s the point: what is done consistently, albeit imperfectly, is what makes changes in the long term. Interventions require rigidity and high effort; lifestyles do not.

Don’t believe that this one study was enough? The good news is that the research has been followed and examined many times over the years. More recently, Dr. Jeff Housman (one of my graduate school professors) and colleague put together a review of the data that came from the study and subsequent reviews. Check this tidbit:

 The linear model supported previous findings, indicating regular exercise, limited alcohol consumption, abstinence from smoking, sleeping 7–8 hours a night, and maintenance of a healthy weight play an important role in promoting longevity and delaying illness and death.

So really the “Alameda 7″ is the “Alameda 5,” meaning that 1-5 on my list above are the big lifestyle “tricks” you need to attempt to do in order to set yourself up for a longer, stronger life.

So what happened to Lester Breslow? He died quietly in his home in 2012…at the age of 97. Maybe there’s something to this stuff after all?

Blue Zones

The main thrust of the Blue Zones starts with a study, known as the Danish Twin Study. This study followed 2872 Danish Twins born between 1870 and 1900. After all of these pairs had died, statistical analysis was performed and determined that ~25% of the variance in longevity can be attributed to genetic factors. Later studies give a slightly larger range, from a high of one-third to a low of 15%. So if we’re pessimistic, only one-third of our longevity is related to genetic factors, thus the remaining 70% is due to lifestyle. This was the thrust of the Alameda 7 study: follow some simple habits and you’ll gain quality years of life.

The book is based on the work of Michel Poulain, who identified a mountainous region of Sardinia where men lived longer than women, but both live longer than the rest of Sardinia. Fun fact: it’s a “Blue Zone” because that’s the color they used to identify the region. Really, take a look:

After the statistical analysis was found to be accurate, that there was in fact a positive longevity outcome, the search for more of these places around the world began.

So after digging and intense statistic analysis, these 5 zones have been confirmed:

bluezonesmap

From these 5 spots, the authors attempted to “tease out” a de facto longevity formula, which is this:

Now I won’t spend time unpacking those, but I would suggest that they’re directionally accurate and very similar to what was found in the Alameda 7 (5?) study. If you were able to follow the above list regularly, then you’d likely be in a good place to maximize your longevity free of chronic diseases.

I have some problems with the conclusions derived from the Blue Zones. Not enough to throw it out (it’s really a great piece of work) but to bring attention to things that I feel are worth reducing the importance of when compared to the authors of the book:

  1. It’s also noted that all of these groups are isolated, which means that there is a significant “Founder Effect” to consider. That is when a population splinters off from a larger population, thus reducing genetic variation. While the Blue Zones demonstrate a founder effect that selects for a genetic maximization of these good habits (e.g. phenotypic expression), other founder effects lead to things like the incredibly high rate of deafness on Martha’s Vineyard, leading to things Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language. Remember that while genes play a relatively small part of longevity, these populations may have the most important reduced genetic variation to maximize the longevity effects of their lifestyles.
  2. It’s hard to prove a negative. In the New York Times article about the Ikarian blue zone, Gary Taubes asks this question: “Are they doing something positive, or is it the absence of something negative?” So while they are eating more vegetables than your average American, they’re also eating very little white flour and sugar compared to your average American. If it’s not there, you can’t see its effect. What is being contributed to veggies might actually be the lack of sugar and flour. It’s especially hard to compare the lifestyle effect; again these are isolated populations. Would the lifestyle-credited longevity benefits remain if sugar and flour were added?
  3. Much of the book is hooked on the dietary component and emphasizes movement, though not “exercise.” Fine, but  a recent analysis showed that the variable that most correlated with the longevity of the Sardinia blue zone men was *drumroll*… physical activity.  Not training, but “pastoralism,” grade of the terrain, and, distance traveled to a place of work. Not magic legumes, not red wine, not cheese, not a super-secret workout…physical activity!

Adventists & Mormons: It was never about meat

Going back to my whine about isolating small variables and attempting control them, remember that our bodies aren’t these time-dependent output machines. That is, an input will not always give you the same output, in the same amount of time…there’s a constellation of variables all in flux that affect the final outcome.

This is the problem with any self experiment: humans tracking inputs into our biology leaves all sorts to be desired…the margin of error is just too much for any sort of meaningful information to be derived:

nancy-qs

We’re not machines; if we were, we could expect a given input to yield a linear, time-consistent response. X volume of powder A yields Y response in Z minutes. But it doesn’t and we don’t. Not only are we not machines, but some of the greatest advances in phlebotomy and proteomics research have come when we get the human element out of the way, mostly for the “unreliable/distractions/kittens” element mentioned above.  Examples:

So just live all Dionysian and  attempt to not control anything? No, but you must understand that the inputs are signals…they are stimuli. The stimuli is directionally accurate and dose-dependent. Further, the dose will have varying outcomes depending on the state of your physiological milieu at the moment of input. You can be sure ingesting protein will lead to new amino acids being available for protein synthesis, but the standard deviation of the response will vary depending on a variety of factors that you can never hope to control.

Further, the body is directionally set by the stimuli…it doesn’t care nearly as much by the context of delivery as much as by the quality of the content. This is especially true in the “paleo” community, with the idea that “Caveman X was on the savanna, therefore only could lift heavy rocks and get thorns in their ass when they screwed. I must mimic this for maximum health!” Here’s the thing:

The body doesn’t care about concepts; it only cares about stimuli.

The SAID principle (specific adaptation to imposed demand) referred to the type, quantity, and frequency of a stimuli. So while our hunter-gatherer ancestors trained their posterior chain by hauling an animal, we might dead lift or use a good lumbar extension. The stimuli is similar, no hauling required. The mismatch was never “We’re not hauling bison out of a ditch and eating mongongo nuts”; it was “we’re never exerting to a sufficient intensity while eating lots of processed garbage.” You mimic the stimuli while reducing the risks.

Why mention all of that? Well I think the above is largely the root of why people get hung up on a single dietary variable like meat (for instance). Never mind that so many studies lump meat in with, say, “fatty” foods like potato chips and ice cream (really!); the food stuffs are just one variable in a larger picture, going back to the title of this post. If the totality of the lifestyle is in order, the inputs hold less weight because the whole spinning plate is much more balanced.

Example: Seventh Day Adventists are often credited for their longevity, which is always reduced to diet. However, the most thorough studies never claim it’s just the diet: they’re always looking at the total lifestyle to draw their conclusions.

Similarly, studies that look at a similar population (California Mormons & California Adventists) show similar improvements in longevity due to the totality of the lifestyle:

  • Adventists: 7.28 years in men and by 4.42 years in women from age 30
  • Mormons: 9.8 years in men and by 5.6 years in women from age 25

Now it’s important to note that this isn’t a comparison between groups…or rather, it’s between one religion and the average Californian of the same age. And the statistics used in each study may be slightly different (like which inputs & variables they found most valuable, etc. I have no interest in unpacking them). The point is that if a single variable, meat, was a keystone/linchpin/cornerstone in the longevity equation, then the statistics should indicate some change. And since it’s often cited as “the” culprit, the statistic should jump out and punch you in the face, the same way cancer rates in those who smoke isn’t a tiny statistical anomaly.

Here’s the point: all of the nerding out in service of the big picture, the lifestyle, is great. A regular sanding of the details leads to a better overall picture. However, nerding out in order to replace the big picture is a fools errand, a big distraction that keeps one focused on a “big secret” that simply doesn’t exist.

How’s My Training (etc.) Been?

Just received this comment from Scott M:

Hey Skyler,

How’s it going? Wondering what your training frequency is like these days – still once every 5? Are you still doing mostly SS HIT with some old school weights thrown in? Still doing chaos training? How about diet – still paleo with carb cycling on workout days? or have you added safe starches? Also, how’s the HRV going?

Good to hear from you.

Best,
Scott

Thanks for the question Scott!

The short answer is: I’m not doing any of that, save for the dietary front.

The longer answer is that I’ve been mostly doing hand balancing and calisthenic work with rings and parallettes. Other than deadlifting and some weighted shoulder dislocates, I don’t do too much object manipulation (Save for when I play around with Movnat combos).

There are many reasons for this, but the main factor is that I’ve been lifting a long, long time and wanted to learn how to manipulate my body in space. Further, with the birth of my son, I can’t always grab a workout at the gym, in spite of working at one. When my days are crammed, I leave after my last client to go pick up my son, so having the parallettes at home to train while he plays is always an easy option. Plus, he thinks it is so cool.

Further, the HIT jihadists are just so damn annoying. For every level-headed practitioner of HIT there is a wake of believers flowing behind him. It’s a bit like Ghandi’s saying:

I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians; they are so unlike your Christ.

And since Efficient Exercise isn’t a “HIT gym” per se, I’m not required to toe the party line because there isn’t one. I can train however and train clients in a way that keeps them training and gets them results, safely. This happens to be very HIT influenced because they’re busy and want the largest bang for their buck.

An Ecological Worldview

So it’s both about wanting to try different things and because of all of the reading I’ve been doing. Given my education, I can argue for or against any approach, but I do like a more “wholistic” (intentional misspelling to emphasize “whole”) point of view. To take into account as many variables that may change the health and well being of a human animal. For a brief primer on human ecology, read this. Sounds familiar, no? All the way back in 1973, no less!

With that in mind, a real game-changer for me has been the book “Human Frontiers, Environments, and Diseases” by Tony McMichael. I originally read about this on Evfit.com, which belongs to Keith Thomas. Long (long!) story short, it’s an academic volume with accessible writing that manages to tie all of the strings together. While a “paleo” perspective is almost only about diet, an Ecological perspective accounts of every aspect of human interaction that can have a positive or negative effect on health or well being. I’m still digesting the book but so far it’s been a great read. You might not find it as such, but if you want a nice review see Keith’s here.

That said, it wasn’t this book that made me change my training: it was fatherhood. The deep components of my psyche that I didn’t know was altered or influenced by relatively benign aspects of my childhood bubbled up to the surface. For example, my father contracted gangrene in his leg during his late 20′s after an operation to remove a bone spur. Fortunately he still has his leg after some confident surgeons and cutting-edge (at the time) use of hyperbaric chambers to heal after the fact. That said, my father was not able to be particularly athletic as a result: hiking has been the long and short of his physical activity save for HIT. I didn’t realize how much this was kind of engrained until my son was born. I see him and I want to not just keep up with him, but I want him to be super-impressed by his father’s physical capability. Not making a weight go up and down, but what I can actually do with myself. It’s not a competition; I want to be the role model for his vitality, ya dig?

And that reminds me: how many old weightlifter do you know that aren’t fat or beat up? Not many. Correlation is not causation, and I can’t help but think that constant striving for an external variable to define “success” or “progress” might let the ego take the wheel and drive to injury sooner than later. I also can’t help but account for the longest lived cultures on Earth and how they don’t do any specific training, not generally. They have lifestyles that dictate lots of physical activity and they maintain their vitality through a huge lifespan. In fact a recent analysis showed that the variable that most correlated with the longevity of the Sardinia blue zone men was *drumroll*… physical activity.  Not training, but “pastoralism,” grade of the terrain, and, distance traveled to a place of work. Not magic legumes, not red wine, not cheese, not a super-secret workout…physical activity!

Diet

This of course segues into diet, which as noted above really hasn’t changed. I typically fast 16 to 18 hours each day and then eat in the remaining window of the 24 hours. My work schedule dictates such, though I’ve been doing some form of IF for 7 years now so it’s really a lifestyle for me. My bodyweight has been within 2 pounds of 175lbs for 4 years now, which pegs me right at 12% body fat according to DEXA scan. I’ll see you at 11o.

Further, no counting of any macronutrient. Some days I’m basically a damned protein-chowing carnivore; others a raw vegan, others still an Inuit on a bobsled. Some days huge carbohydrate loads, others almost zilch. The foods remain the same though:

Eat-Real-Food-What-is-Paleo-620x481Do I think, you know, legumes or the like will kill you? No, especially when cooked. Do I enjoy good bread from time-to-time? I do, with a crapton of butter on top. Or olive oil.

But for my internal calculus, they’re not regulars in my diet for this reason: are they giving me something I can’t get elsewhere? No. Do they pose potentially problematic components that I’d rather not have regularly? Yes. Ergo I avoid them. I’m not freaking out if the salad I bought came with croutons, or if the chili that’s available has some beans in it. I live in the real world and can control very little. But in my house, where I have control, it’s the above.

That calculus might not work for you; maybe you grew up loving legumes and just can’t think to get rid of them, nor do they cause you problems. Great! I came to this perspective through a Blue Zones perspective, so I’m certain legumes are generally fine. But I never liked legumes, so I don’t buy either side of the coin: yes they’re consumed regularly in these longevity cultures, but I don’t think they’re magic, AND they have potentially problematic compounds, but I don’t think they’ll kill you and they have good nutrition value if that’s your thing.

It’s a bit of the “Jeet Kune Do” or “Wei Wu Wei” of diet. It just is.

Oh, about HRV. I still use it, but not to track my workouts. I use it during my breath meditation to play with different breathing patterns and see how that changes my HRV. Great tech and once you know where you best benefit from a certain type of mindfulness practice (as measured by HRV), you can stop measuring. However, you might also see changes in your HRV in spite of the “known” breathing pattern because of life stressors. Still a good indicator, no longer use it for my training.

Summed up

That’s a longish winding answer; I like bullet points so let’s do that:

  • Currently I’m “training” 3 days per week with parallettes or rings (think GMB Fitness-type stuff) plus trap bar deadlifts
  • And I’m “moving” 6 days per week (Movnat, hiking, yoga, the odd trail run[!])
  • I do this because the activities are fun at fit the whole “ecological” paradigm without being silly. Plus they’re portable given my schedule. And my son thinks they’re great.
  • I fast daily.
  • I eat real food, avoiding problematic compounds without being dogmatic. I feel best on this form of eating.I don’t make fake fill-ins; if I want bread or ice cream, I eat bread or ice cream, not fucking “paleo bread” or “low carb ice cream.” Fuck that noise.
  • Do the best you can given your circumstances; it’s more than enough. What matters is that it’s consistent. Consistent imperfection trumps inconsistent perfection. What, you thought the longest, healthiest, and leanest cultures on Earth count their macros? Aim for the “perfect” exercise stimuli? Fuck. No. They. Did. Not.
  • Ironically, doing the above resembles magic when done for a long enough period of time.

In a strange turn of events, I’m going to leave the comments open on this one. Make me proud, Internets.

Ancestral Health Symposium 2014

This is an expanded version of my chat about AHS2014 over at the Efficient Exercise blog. Go read that now if you haven’t yet…I’ll wait.

…Good? Good.

If you haven’t seen the video, you can take a look at that too:

So in addition to everything I wrote over there and said in my talk, there are a few small additions I’d like to make about the event. First of all, the thing that is readily apparent from year one (2011) to year four is that the organizers have started to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. For example, Year one featured talks about the topic of violence in the course of human evolutionary history, which is actually not an unrelated or topic lacking in discussion (for example, see Ned’s exploration of the War of Canudos and the unexpected longevity of the survivors). However, from the perspective things a person can control or influence, famine and war are so far away from either. So AHS has moved from the total umbrella of things that have influenced evolutionary outcomes to the things that we can control or influence that lead to larger health & healthcare outcomes. Further, you had to present your evidence for your conclusions. It wasn’t enough to present a just so description, but rather people gave guided tours of the science and how it doesn’t fit perfectly with what is currently recommended, either in the ancestral health community or in the mainstream community. As I said before: You had to show your work.

So what would I have added? Well, the one point I forgot to expand upon was something I was actually criticized for: it kinda looks like a HIT protocol is the “best” for achieving these outcomes. The point I wanted to make, and simply forgot, is that like the rest of the evidence base, there is no “base protocol” for testing to see if certain putative markers or clinically significant outcomes are even seen in humans (based on animal studies).

This exists for cardiorespiratory training. Are you familiar with the Bruce protocol? On a treadmill, you increase the speed and grade until a person taps out or a true VO2 max is reached:

Bruce GraphSo this is normally used as a stress test (“Graded Exercise Test”) to determine some amount of metabolic fitness. As we learned in school, it’s also a dismissal test that is done with EKG so if the person kicks in the parking lot, you have data to show that they were great on the treadmill!

Anyway, when a novel marker of something is discovered in animal models, a standardized test like this is helpful to see if said marker is seen in humans. For example, here’s a clinical trial in which the Bruce will be used to see if BDNF is increased in those with spinal cord injury. What I’d like to see is someone put together, based on the literature, the resistance training equivalent to the Bruce, one that can be used to determine physiological responses to a particular training modality. This does not imply that it is the only protocol that elicits the response; it’s only there to test the feasibility of response.

In other words, the exercise physiologists had to go through the Bruce before getting to Tabata as far as determining changes in lactate threshold (for example). The same thing needs to occur for resistance training: a base protocol that determines IF a change can occur before the variables are tweaked as to how to MAXIMIZE the change that occurs.

So, you know, if that looks like HIT currently, so be it. I can’t turn an ought into an is, no matter how confident you are that it’s sub-optimal. That’s why we do research, folks, but you gotta start at square one.

HIT + Movement Training: The Ultimate Health Protocol?

erwan-kneelingtoliftlog

Nothing like a hyperbolic title to get a person’s attention!

That said, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Though in my early 30′s, I think a great deal about the notion of sustainable training. That is, what are modalities that a person can take up in their life to improve their health that have long shelf lives? Though something like powerlifting is very useful, you’ll find many more people participating in their teens through their thirties than you would in their sixties and seventies. I find the odd 80 year old hugely inspiring, but you don’t see the graveyard of the people who trained in basically the same manner who are just beat up old weightlifters or quit training after a gnarly injury. Remember, our joints are meant for millions of movement cycles and the wear is cumulative assuming no acute injury. Those years of junky muscle ups may turn into a “mysterious” frozen shoulder in your 50′s, that you’ll be dealing with in some capacity until you die.

Which is to say, I’m aiming to avoid that.

BUT I’ve been spending a lot of time lately doing some handbalancing. Prior to ~9 months ago, I had never stood on my hands or even attempted it. Now my best handstand is 20 seconds and long term I’d like to build up to a press handstand and a one arm handstand. These are my hobbies, but I’ve also enjoyed some minor acrobatics and other stuff just for fun.

This brings me to something I discussed in my “Grand Unified Training Spectrum” post, namely that HIT guys are super narrow unless prodded to do more movement. They generally find flexibility useless (I used to, but now I disagree), mobility work unnecessary (it has great value), and from those I’ve met they suggest that people live in a hyperbaric chamber between workouts (To quote Dr. Ben Bocchicchio). Can you imagine how much “fun” that would be?

The point is to take the strength you build and apply it in your life. This is the “Active Phenotype” that amazing mutant researchers like Frank Booth talk about. It helps if your macroenvironment supports lots of physical activity, rather than just exercising within your microenvironment. A culture of activity furthers the active phenotype through avenues of physical activity. But if you live in a city that does not support this, what are you to do? No matter how perfect the program, an otherwise sedentary life is going to hamstring health and longevity.

So HIT is very efficient, is sustainable, is joint friendly, focuses on stimulating new muscle tissue and all of its endocrine-altering effects. What do you do the rest of the time? Patrick Diver had it right when he was interviewed at Conditioning Research:

My take on it goes like this:  do a HIT session once a week to cover your bases, and then go jump, roll, fight, climb, cycle or whatever else that seems like fun to you. 

From a learning perspective, you’d be hard pressed not to learn to move better from participating in Movnat. I used to think Erwan was a crazy French hippy but after many discussions with him, his point that physical activity should make one more adaptable, should be in line with natural human movements (“phylogenetic movement patterns” in motor learning lingo), and should be an expression of the human animal (e.g. “active phenotype”) is true. I agree 100%. The thing is that too many people confuse exercise for physical activity. They’re not the same: exercise is akin to a flu shot that necessitates a long recovery interval to manifest a measurable improvement in what you’re exercising. Physical activity should be done with a greater frequency, as practice for the sake of bettering the movement quality requires such. Further, one should not be trying to quantify the exercise benefit of physical activity, as getting better can often mean diluting the exercise benefit. This is why you have fitness tourists: after they suck, they move on because it got “easier.” So Movnat is great and it’s even better when combined with HIT or a time efficient program looking to make the muscles stronger. Win-win.
What can you do if you don’t a have some sort of Movnat practitioner near you or you simply don’t want to pay for it? You could do the MODs from Movnat if you have the space and facility, but what if you wanted more structure? There’s something that fills the gap: Floor 1 from GMB Fitness. They’ve distilled everything I’ve discussed earlier into a program that builds you from the ground up for higher quality movement, dexterity, and body control. This is the “gap” that just lifting misses: you WILL go out of alignment in the real world. Giving yourself “Biomechanical Headroom” will go a long way toward keeping you injury free while also having a good time just movement and learning what you can do with your body.
I’m not an affiliate of GMB, nor have they given me anything. It’s just the only program I know of that can fill the gap if you have no interest in doing a sport or are not otherwise improving general movement quality (at least until Erwan’s book comes out).
Remember: the body gets better at doing or not doing the things you regularly do. Pay attention to your movement quality and you’ll be keeping that movement quality for the large majority of your life.

 

 

 

Inputs and Biological Responses

Michael Allen Smith, who writes entirely too much, recently wrote this about the messy  notion of “Quantified Self.” The link he provides gives you all you need to know about why humans tracking inputs into our biology leaves all sorts to be desired…the margin of error is just too much for any sort of meaningful information to be derived:

nancy-qs

We’re not machines; if we were, we could expect a given input to yield a linear, time-consistent response. X volume of powder A yields Y response in Z minutes. But it doesn’t and we don’t. Not only are we not machines, but some of the greatest advances in phlebotomy and proteomics research have come when we get the human element out of the way, mostly for the “unreliable/distractions/kittens” element mentioned above.  Examples:

So just live all Dionysian and  attempt to not control anything? No, but you must understand that the inputs are signals…they are stimuli. The stimuli is directionally accurate and dose-dependent. Further, the dose will have varying outcomes depending on the state of your physiological milieu at the moment of input. You can be sure ingesting protein will lead to new amino acids being available for protein synthesis, but the standard deviation of the response will vary depending on a variety of factors that you can never hope to control.

Further, the body is directionally set by the stimuli…it doesn’t care nearly as much by the context of delivery as much as by the quality of the content. This is especially true in the “paleo” community, with the idea that “Caveman X was on the savanna, therefore only could lift heavy rocks and get thorns in their ass when they screwed. I must mimic this for maximum health!” Here’s the thing:

The body doesn’t care about concepts; it only cares about stimuli.

The SAID principle (specific adaptation to imposed demand) referred to the type, quantity, and frequency of a stimuli. So while our hunter-gatherer ancestors trained their posterior chain by hauling an animal, we might dead lift or use a good lumbar extension. The stimuli is similar, no hauling required. The mismatch was never “We’re not hauling bison out of a ditch and eating mongongo nuts”; it was “we’re never exerting to a sufficient intensity while eating lots of processed garbage.” You mimic the stimuli while reducing the risks.

Coming full circle, once you do that, don’t go looking for a tightly defined output that repeats with the same input. You’ve narrowed the possible conclusions, but you’ve not selected any one of them. Your body will do that arithmetic in a way you can’t rationally understand based on milieu you cannot control. Your stimuli influences the possible outcome, nothing more.  To attempt to track everything and be sure you “found” a definite outcome is akin to reading tea leaves and predicting Harry Potter will die.

 

Lessons From Grad School

Last week I officially graduated. I’m not finished with my final project for publication, but that happens independent of getting my degree…it’s icing on the cake.

Having a week of doing nothing school related allowed space to reflect on some of the take-away lessons from school. In no particular order:

  • You get out what you put in. Totally cliche but totally true, you’re going to get a lot of new information and you can just remember it or attempt to integrate it into your current understanding. Allowing it to actually change what you think you know allows you to be a better practitioner in whatever you’re going to school for when you’re finished.
  • To that end, there are some people who let the information wash over them like water off a duck’s back. They want the credentials, not the intangibles that come with hard work.
  • Academic writing is a giant pain in the ass, but I understand and appreciate why. I’d rather just apply what I know. As a result, any other degrees I get will likely be clinical or “applied”-type degrees.
  • Your core curriculum serves to deepen your silos of knowledge; the electives serve to add silos. Take advantage of this.
  • As a result, the class I found most interesting, and most applicable in tying everything together, was a class I was least looking forward to taking (as I’ll explain in a later post).
  • Academia is not glamorous. There are no more Indiana Jones-type professors and I’m not sure there ever will be again. It is a job, period.
  • There is not cathartic moment with graduation; you’re still you. Only now you get some letters after your name signifying a modicum of expertise. I think if you didn’t come from money or privilege, this is a very big deal on a personal level. I know it was for me.
  • Your standard internet fitness guru can dig up a mess of information about content without having any idea as to how to contextualize it. This is the difference between a kid with a new toy and a master with a box of tools.
  • It is very easy to develop a type of Stockholm syndrome while in the deepest bowels of a degree program. “I’ll just stay in school forever!” as some sort of distraction from the daily slog. Once finished, this disappears.
  • Most of what people refer to as “exercise” is really just gussied up recreation. Without a good way to measure what’s going on at the physiological level (what you’re attempting to “exercise” for health outcomes), you’re just guessing which part of the noise is actually the signal. Most are terrible at this.
  • On the other hand, the value of recreation cannot be denied. However, only recreation often leads to injuries in trying to take something that should be “fun” and push it to “exercise.” Just leave it fun.
  • Being able to read journal articles like a scientist has value that cannot be understated.

Those are off the top of my head, I’m sure there are tons more in there. But that should give you a taste of some of the “intangible” knowledge acquisitions you’ll gain if you’re about to venture down the graduate school path.

Getting “Stronger” With Aging – How Do We Score?

This is an expanded version of an answer I wanted to give over at Doug’s website to the question of how do you judge improvement in functional ability with aging. Specifically, Ed is almost 69 but feeling really solid about his strength. The exchange:

“Another Point: Folks, don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re “stronger” after 5 Years of aging – one might perform exercises better or score well on machines, but age Kicks Your A**”

Not sure I agree. I firmly believe that I’m as close to defying the aging process as could happen. Between 61 and 63 my measurable strength levels went up about 60-70% (despite “working out” with weights for 20 years prior…I had a good start). Going on 69 and they have not dropped one bit. So that said, in the last 5 years I’ve seen no decline in what I accomplished the first 2 years. Which says to me, I’m just as strong now as I was 5 years ago (not to mention I feel fantastic!)

The other trainer basically waves off Ed’s statement by saying he’s “keeping score on machines” and implies that a barbell bench press would be the “real” scorekeeper of his strength levels. Let’s talk about this.

What the heck is strength, actually?

Or specifically, what are the ways in which our body manifests strength? People with a little experience in this field understand that it’s not *just* muscle mass being added. There’s a whole host of compensatory mechanisms being used to make one “stronger” without a corresponding increase in size.

In Neuromechanics of Human Movement, Roger Enoka (the author) lists eight potential neurological areas for non-hypertrophy related strength gains:

  • Enhanced output from supraspinal centers (which they show from simply imagining muscle contractions)
  • Changes in descending drive that reduce the bilateral deficit (the inability to fully recruit all of the motor units during dual limb compound movements)
  • Increased motor unit synchronization
  • Greater muscle activation (EMG)
  • Heightened excitability and altered connections into motor neurons
  • Reduced coactivation of antagonist muscles
  • Greater activation of agonist and synergist muscles
  • Enhanced cross-education

Big list, but the important component is that basic coordination between the muscles is the single greatest contributor to non-hypertrophy related strength gains. Along with neurological adaptations, adaptations involving increased stiffness in the tissues that connect from bone to bone (tendons, extracellular matrix, etc.) can lead to increased force transmission from muscle to bone, which play a significant role in increased strength gains. The more “spring-like” the tissue can become, the more the force produced ends up moving through the barbell or apparatus attempting to be moved.

So in that sense, the trainer talking about keeping “score” with machines (or any exercise) is correct: they can lie to you. However, it’s important to note that these mechanisms cannot compensate forever. Imagine if they could: you’d be the 98lb weakling dead lifting 800lbs. Rather, these compensations occur in parallel with hypertrophy and within parameters. Eventually the compensatory ability reaches its ceiling for a given amount of muscle mass and you either add tissue or, if you’re near your genetic limit, don’t get any stronger or bigger. Such is life. But the take away is that if you’re getting stronger and your weight is stable, you’re probably not losing muscle. This measure is directionally accurate.

So how else can you keep score?

Body composition

Let me remind you that Ed is nearly 69. He’s on the downward slope of muscle mass and strength gains, where his peers are withering. Ed is making progress due to their rapid loss of tissue due to inactivity and sudden fat increase, a term called “sarcopenic obesity.” A great review of this can be found here.

From a visual perspective, this curve can be displayed. Here’s how it looks based on the literature:

Muscle curve ageThe original curve is from “Bending the Aging Curve” by Joseph Signorile. I added the “Paddon-Jones” curve, as one of Dr. Paddon-Jones former students was a muscle physiologist at Texas State University (where I received my masters). She explained that the original curve doesn’t account for the fact that people get injured, lose a lot of mass, and never recover to a “normal” projected loss. So the “gap” between a good functioning person training and their sedentary peers is even larger.

It looks great on a graph, but something more substantial is required. How about images?

psm.2011.09.1933_fig5 The 40 year old and 74 year old triathlete look nearly identical as far as muscle mass are concerned. Remember it is the total volume of tissue we’re looking at here; it’s difficult to sometimes see how a person actually is doing when they’re aging because of the breaking down of the collagen matrix in their skin making them look less “hard” than when they were younger. The muscle is there, but the skin lies a bit.

Ed notes substancial strength and tissue gains in his early 60′s. We see these improvements in sedentary 90+ year olds. It looks like this:

90 muscleBased on the above, it is reasonable to assume that one could “jump” a line if training is sufficient in intensity and progression. Perhaps this explains Ed’s jump in strength and maintenance thereof.

Another point: muscle is an endocrine organ. High quality work with muscle stimulates a more youthful expression in all of the organ systems in the body. It is literally the gatekeeper to youth.

Takeaways

  1. Strength is a directionally accurate indicator of lean tissue maintenance and/or gain during aging.
  2. Decay is inevitable but the rate of decay is largely within your control.
  3. The surest way to “keep score” of your physical function throughout aging is a yearly DXA scan to assess muscle and bone, a basic mobility screen, and strength as assessed by your training regimen. All of this with feeling really damn good covers both objective and subjective measures of physical function.

The Elderly Need More Exercise? Not Exactly.

An interesting discussion over at Doug McGuff’s message board regarding exercise and aging. This comment was of interest:

I suggest that the sedentary elderly require more exercise, not less. I am one such. A few minutes a week is not going to do it for sarcopenia or anything else. If I train once a week I cannot maintain my condition, strength,metabolic benefit, motivation or momentum. Nor can you if the rest of the time you are inactive.

Here was my response to this statement:

And I disagree; I think the elderly need more activity, not exercise. Further, the health education research is clear: in the elderly, physical activity and self-efficacy track side by side. The more confident a person is in their abilities, the more physically active they are; the more physically active they are, the more confident they are in their abilities.

If you make a person stronger in your studio, they’re more confident in their ability to do other activities. This is what Doug talks about when he says people want to move more after training for a number of months. Get strong and you’ll get more active relative to your starting lifestyle.

I’ll even make it a nice soundbite: have you ever heard the phrase “a stronger athlete is a better athlete?” The same is true of human beings throughout aging, that is a stronger human is a better (more active, more healthy, more resistant to cancer/metabolic disease/disability) human. (Emphasis mine…just now!)

There is a nugget of wisdom in there that I want people to pay attention to: “relative to your starting lifestyle.” If a person is doing zip and they start a once per week strength training routine that then leads them to take leisurely strolls because they enjoy it, they’re going to do a whole lot better for themselves compared to where they started as far as disease prevention and injury risk reduction. If you had a crazy triathelte at the same advanced age add the same dose of exercise, it wouldn’t make much of a difference. There’s a survivorship bias discussion that will be addressed another time, but here’s my advice: don’t take advice from an endurance athlete who has been training “all of their life” as the gospel…there’s more at play than just hard work!

I digress; elderly individuals should look at their training as an upside-down oil funnel: the widest, part is going to be activity that is very low in intensity but very high in frequency. It seems this is where one can start making a semantic argument that this too is “exercise.” However, it’s really just being a good human animal and setting a functional path: if you move a certain way today, you’ve got a good chance of moving that way tomorrow. The middle part of the funnel is going to be mobility work as maintaining joint free range of motion is paramount for maintaining activity levels. When looking at barriers to exercise, the less mobile people are, the larger their barriers to exercising become. For example, those with mobility limitations cite “poor health, fear and negative experiences, lack of company, and an unsuitable environment as barriers to exercise…”. Performing joint mobility work for 10-20 minutes a day, hell even starting at 5 minutes per day, when mobility is still pretty good will go a long way to maintaining mobility, which maintains activity levels and exercise efficacy. Finally, the tip of the funnel is exercise training, preferably of a high intensity nature. Muscle is the most plastic tissue in the body, the largest endocrine organ we have, and creating a sufficient degree of demand will improve all aspects of a person’s physiology. By its nature, it cannot be sustained for very long and requires a prolonged recovery period. That’s fine, as it means more time for the activities the person would rather be doing, which is going to set the table for continuing to do the activities until the day they die. All good stuff!

So no, the elderly do not need more exercise; they need just enough exercise to produce a body that feels good doing lots of physical activity that a person would rather be doing. Maybe this advice will produce a few more Stephen Jepsons in the world and how cool would that be?