Questions & Answers: Generalism & Modality Combination

Just received this question:

Skyler,

Great article. How might a workout look if you’re combining modalities and only have a few days a week to train? I have a job and a kid; I can’t wander the world looking for new ways to move just because!

-Tyler Skanner, Austin, TX

Thanks Tyler,

So here’s a workout I did earlier this week that attempts to bridge some modalities into a comprehensive “General Generalist” routine:

  • The main thrust of my workout was ring training akin to the sample program provided by GMB here.
  • In addition, I was performing trap bar deadlift, which I actually started the routine with while I warmed up my shoulders and did handstand work (I always start with handstands).
  • So after the handstands, deadlifts, and light ring work, I moved into the main exercises. Between sets I performed Movnat combos similar to those found at these links:
  • At the end of the workout, I went for a long walk just because.
  • Later that evening, I did a pre-bed movement flow that touches on some play elements and shoulder/back stretching elements like down dog, cat/camel, and super pigeon.

On my “non-training” days, I usually end up playing with my son in the backyard, so lots of long jumps, cartwheels, and body levers. In addition, I’ll break out the slackline and carry him on that.

Note that in the “added” combo work between work sets, the focus is always on quality. There’s a rough number guide, but it’s mostly about keeping it pretty, being efficient, moving with grace…those are the goals.

What is a “generalist” anyway?

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”— Robert Heinlein

That quote has been kicking around for ages and is often used as a description for why human beings shouldn’t aspire, as a course of action, to specialize if one’s goal is to become a fully-functioning human animal on as many ecological levels as possible. Our great uniqueness, if we have it beyond the ability to sweat & run (and opposable thumbs), is our ability to combine many mediocrities into an advantage based on the context in which the action takes place. Our big brains create complex motor patterns better than any other creature, can adopt them quickly though not perfectly.

Let’s step back: who wants to be mediocre? Well let’s define it (via Webster’s):

me·di·o·cre

adjective \ˌmē-dē-ˈō-kər\

: not very good

:  of moderate or low quality, value, ability, or performance :  ordinary, so-so
Alright that still doesn’t seem like it’s making my case, right? Mediocre, by definition, is comparative within a specific domain. Specialists compared against one another or laypersons. But if you compare the skills against a general population, suddenly it’s pretty good. Like a 30 second handstand is nothing compared to what Yuri Marmarstein can do, but compared to the general population, you are a superior human being in this domain.
The best part about that? You can possess a broad spate of mediocrity in many many arenas that makes you look like Heinlein’s definition of the “Competent Man” shown at the start of this post. So how long would that take per skill set?
According to Josh Kaufman, that’s about 20 hours of deliberate practice:

So that’s about getting to the top of the initial steep curve of a skill. That’s where most people want to be; if they say they want to learn how to juggle, they don’t usually mean chainsaws on a unicycle while on fire. They mean 3 tennis balls for more that a few tosses. That’s the broad spectrum competency we’re talking about here. It’s really about the essentials.

Essential vs. Complete

Here’s where things get interesting: being a generalist is really about the essentials versus the complete picture. It reminds me of an audiobook that Ken Wilber made some years ago, where he talked about Buddhism in a similar fashion:

Needleman once said that Zen was essential Buddhism, and that Tibetan Buddhism was complete Buddhism. That’s sort of what it is, Zen it goes right to the heart: Satori! This is it, satori! IF you don’t have satori, you don’t have Buddhism. But Tibetan is like the whole shebang. I mean it’s got every single aspect, vehicle, gross, subtle, causal, all sorts of practices.

And I think that’s where the wheels come off for people: they think that a generalist is broadly specialized in a lot of areas, but it’s really just knowing the essentials in a lot of areas. Aiming to be a complete human being, functionally, is not about collecting a lot of specialization, but gaining the essentials in many areas and being able to apply them efficiently.

The Age Dilemma

Finally, there seems to be some sort of base level that we regress toward over time but can maintain. Our athletic peak, depending on event, seems to be late 20’s to early 40’s (with power events earlier and distance events later). From there we seem to just drip a small loss of ability until we reach some sort of equilibrium, maintaining motor skill, assuming activity,  until we die… a sort of biomechanical, athletic headroom that squares off when we do.

Chris McDougall talks about this with regard to distance running, and it’s clearly there with regards to weight training. But it’s even there with calisthenic/bodyweight activities that seem structurally benign. Even old master hand balancers lose their ability to do incredible one handed feats…but they can still hit a really decent handstand without trouble.

So my question is as always: is what you build above baseline beneficial, or is all the work just beating on the joints and making it harder to maintain ability with age? It certainly seems that those most accomplished in their youth are significantly less able as they get much older. They could have just changed interests, or those who still “have it” just aren’t visible like they used to be.

What does “General” look like?

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but I think that if you’re looking to be a “generalist” here’s some ideas:

  • Get good at GMB’s Level 1 curriculum (they don’t pay me or anything, I just think it’s a good packaged answer to the question) OR…
  • Find a Movnat practitioner (or some other phylogentic movement skill system practitioner) OR…
  • Do some minimal level of resistance training with a lot of the movement activity mentioned above (similar to my blog post here).
  • Include some sort of hinge power patterning. Doesn’t have to be really heavy, but should be accessible. The old Okinawan women can squat off the ground at 98 years because they’ve always squatted off the ground.
  • You’re not “born to run”…but you should be able to, and should check in on that from time to time. James’ talk elaborates on that, which you can view here.
  • Lots and lots of play.

That’s my 2 cents; what do you think?

It’s True: Wood Really Is Better

I feel like I’m going all Raymond Calitri here:

IMG_3054-0

“Metal is cold…ugly. Wood is warm…clean…provided by nature.”

I would have thought it crazy, but a fictional character is a great, bad action flick is right. Ryan Hurst at GMB talks about this in a podcast but wood just feels better for the sake of doing bodyweight type training. It’s also harder (when it comes to rings) to do right, so you can’t screw around and muscle your way through it. You have to abide.

“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.

More Questions: Supplements and movement

Got another question, and another answer!

Fantastic. I’m considering doing equipment free bodyweight training and being active instead of those draining infrequent sessions. Everybody has 45 minutes a day for “activity”. You don’t mention supplements. I became kind of mentally dependent on creatine 5g/day and would like to drop it, the fear of missing out is there although there is not much evidence it “works” for me. Anyway, you found a nice balance. Is it 3 workouts plus 6 “moving” or 3 plus 3 equals 6?
Thanks
Ondřej

Thanks Ondřej! Really quickly: just because I’ve switched to bodyweight training in my own life does NOT mean that I don’t see value in HIT or infrequent/intense workouts. They’re great: wonderful for creating stimuli that results in health outcomes. If your goal is skill-based, you’ll need more practice, period. I’ve previously discussed how to combine HIT & movement skill work if you’d like to do such a thing here and here.

Supplements

As far as supplements, I take a probiotic and fish oil sporadically. If I was to wager it would be 4 to 5 days per week. Again, no worry about missing out, though I know EXACTLY where you are coming from! Why those supplements? They’re what I recommend all of my clients take, if not daily, on a regular basis.

The only “supplement” I take daily is MCT/C8 oil in the morning with my coffee. I’ve never tested my blood ketones, so I don’t have a “target range” for anything. This is based on what Paul Jaminet has noted for raising HDL, though my HDL last time was 79, so I don’t really need it for that either.

That said there is certainly a cognitive effect after having been away from the MCT’s for a while that quickly becomes the norm. I use it “daily” roughly 60% of the year, if I was to estimate.

Movement

So in regards to my schedule, I tend to to “3+3” days per week. There have been days that I can manage, through the grace of whatever deity you’re currently praying to, to get a morning “workout” and an afternoon “movement” session, but they’re exceedingly rare. Instead what tends to happen is I rip out a morning “handstand” session between clients and then do my “workout” at home. Normally the handstands are the warmup for the workout but you’ve got to be flexible.

I don’t find that the movement sessions, if planned right, impede progress. If anything, the movement feels good in the face of any soreness I may have from my workout. This is also on top of any minor “movement goals” I have like “hang 7 minutes a day” or “backbend 5 minutes a day” that I can just shove into my training day.

Questions Answered: Parallettes

My last post was well received and generated a few questions. Let’s answer one:

Excellent post Skyler and worth the wait!

I’ve transitioned to more bodyweight style stuff myself (because I enjoy it and it’s where my interests lie). I still do some weighted work but lifting heavier and heavier just doesn’t make sense to me. I’m in my early 40s and want to do this stuff for life and feel good doing it!

My diet has also transitioned to something similar with a 16 hour or so fast and mostly then just two meals. Those two meals are mostly nutrient dense meals (fruits, veggies, lean meats and fish, nuts etc) but life is for living so I am no where near as obsessive as I once was. This suits me and gives me a lot of freedom.

I’m not a fan of high volume training and never have been but I do play with multiple set patterns and like to focus on a few core movements that I just try to get better at over time. Some would find that dull but I like not having too many moving parts and keeping things simple.

It would be good to hear how you’re progressing and training the parallette work in a future post and if you’ve noticed differences in your general strength, conditioning and how you feel compared to weights.

Keep well!

Carl

Thanks for the question, Carl!

I’m glad you mentioned the movement away from weights toward bodyweight stuff because of age. Look, you can lift weights all of your life; they’re a great tool. For your average person, they’re not going to be so strong so as to hurt themselves with weights, especially if they’re starting them later in life.

And the other consideration is: you can’t get stronger to infinity, because either your joints or connective tissue give up the ghost. Part of my decision to move into mostly bodyweight training (at least for now; I still have a lot of life to live!) stems from the fact that I can get very strong and have fun doing it manipulating my own weight. You can hurt yourself, of course, so don’t think that just because it’s bodyweight doesn’t mean it doesn’t come with its own risks. There’s a cost to everything; I just think that for my ego, bodyweight possesses less.

But then again, I still deadlift, so maybe that’s just the right blend for me. And Keith Thomas over at Evfit.com let me know recently that he’s deadlifts 2.5x bodyweight

Regarding Parallettes

So I was fortunate to briefly be an Alpha Posse member at GMB Fitness after my son was born. I stopped because a baby takes ALL of your money, but I gained some interesting progressions on the parallettes during that time. I’ve been focusing mostly on getting the bent arm stand and l-sits, mostly to augment my handstand work.

Which is what really kicked all of this off. I couldn’t even kick up into a handstand a year ago. Now I can consistently do 8-10 second “reps” so as not to be a total party trick. Could I have progressed faster? Maybe, but I’m not in a hurry for anything, so I solider on.

Next up I’m likely to move to rings because they’re fun. No iron cross or anything like that, just controlled muscle ups, transitions, and the like. Mostly to show myself that my elbow is (mostly) healed after I gave myself tendonitis getting too aggressive on the rope climb last year. See? Told you that you can hurt yourself with this stuff too!

Diet

Glad you’re enjoying fasting, or that it gives you flexibility in your life. That’s why I use it and have stayed lean year-round without all of the minutia masturbation. Yesterday, for example, I ate a ton of carbs from blueberries, bananas, and potatoes. Today I might not see as many carbs, maybe more protein, I don’t know. I’m certainly not worried about it. Real food, cook as much as I can, eat slowly, stop when satisfied and not stuffed. It’s almost too easy.