Sunday, December 31, 2017

New Morning.

Where walls meet and coffee cups are made.

An oblate spheroid has spun round one more time and orbited a giant fireball. Due to an arbitrary decision made a millennia ago, you woke up and a new year had begun.

Over the last year practically every cell in your body has been replaced and renewed. You are a new version of yourself but a year older. The atoms that make you up have been around since the beginning of the universe... and still you can't figure out what your new year resolutions should be.

An infinite number of possibilities brought you to this exact moment, most of which are unknowable. I am typing on a computer invented by someone in California, containing precious elements mined in Africa or Asia, which lay buried in the ground for millions of years, drinking a coffee farmed somewhere in South America, in a cup made of earth fired in a kiln, with milk from a cow in England, all made using a machine made of metal dug out of the earth and run using electricity burning in a power station somewhere, I'm sitting in a room where the walls meet at a perfect right angle, built before I was born by a person who was skilled at things I can't even comprehend how to do. All of this is one moment, all of those things took thousands of humans, thousands of years to perfect, it is beyond the imagination of just one person.

We want to see certainty, meaning, patterns, logic and reason, and when we don't the universe seems like it was built on shaky ground.

No i ching throwing, fortune telling, tarot card reading, astrologer will be able to make sense of it for you, there are just too many variables.

All these infinite events will coalesce into moments you will remember over the next year.


Through a grubby bus window the sun will hit the hoar frost on the fields, and for a second the prosaic and poetic collide and everything will seem perfect, as it should be.

Other times. The sun comes up like a piss stain streaked across an old tramps blanket. But you will still get up and start another day.

But most days are in the middle. Most conversations you will forget, in a lifetime only a handful will stick; same with people.

3am and you'll wake up haunted by things that don't matter and somethings that do, and there will be nothing you can do.

Fragments will spin out of your brain; driving into Reno in the sleeting rain, watching a hillside fire in the Mediterranean, standing under an aircraft wing sheltering from the rain, watching the bodies burn at Pashupatinath. What seeps out of your brain will be unique to you and meaningful to you alone.

Memories, are they what make you 'you'?
Kindness and Gratitude.

The year in review, a long list things you've forgotten. Then your own year in review, for me I didn't read Proust or War and Peace, I didn't write a novel, didn't even have an idea for a novel. Didn't start a PhD or MSc in Neuroscience or anything, didn't run more than a few miles, did no events. But then, be kind to yourself. I do live in a great place with a great partner and a great son, I met some good people and had some good conversations; went to some new places. Everyday life is full of highlights, a cup of coffee here, a laugh at work there. These moments form a life.

Don't go in with too many fixed ideas. What you thought were your goals, may not ultimately be the ones you need to pursue.

The only responses that seem to make sense in the face of all this chaos and stuff is to be kind. Be kind to yourself and others, in a world where we are all trying to be happy and make connections.

And gratitude, to be thankful for the little things that make make up each day and manage to puncture through the hardness of it all.

Try and find a sense of purpose in the moment, every moment. This does not mean everything you do has to be imbued with mystical meaning. The fact that the sun comes up, rain falls from the sky and we are in a nondescript corner of the universe where I'm writing this and you are reading this, despite all the other infinite possibilities of things we could have been doing is mystical enough for any one day.

Goals. The Why.

'comfort is overrated' see the video below.

Anything that involves learning something new or doing something new will be uncomfortable. People like the idea of speaking a new language. They can visualize themselves sitting in an Italian cafe conversing with the locals fluently, what they don't want to visualize is the hard slog of remembering verbs and making mistakes. Ultimately they don't want to look or feel stupid, which is probably the main reason most adults don't try new things or learn new subjects, the ego is fragile.

In the words of Zen fella John Tarrant Roshi

"There is no end to the suffering caused by comparison."

Whether that be comparison with others or comparing yourself to what you think you should be.

Why do those new year resolutions fail? Is it because people are stuck in the future goal, they don't like the process, it brings them no satisfaction. There is no real sense of purpose, except some vague idea of capturing their lost youth by weighing the same as they did when they were eighteen. The most satisfied people love the process of training, gym or running or classes, or whatever they are learning or doing.

It's the reason your 1 day or 7 day free gym trial wont work. People who take these out have no investment in the process and 7 days isn't long enough for them to start enjoying it. It is long enough to remind them they can't achieve anything in 7 days, their goal is harder than they thought, will take longer than they thought and involves something they don't get that much pleasure from. It reminds them of their mortality, that life is short and to give up and go and do something they do enjoy doing like watching Netflix or going to the pub.

The guiding lights for the next year:

3 principles as outlined by Richard Nisbett (2015:225) and which underlie Eastern thought:

1) Principle of change: Reality is a process of change. What is currently true will shortly be false.
2) Principle of contradiction: Contradiction is the dynamic underlying change. Because change is constant, contradiction is constant.
3) Principle of relationships(holism): The whole is more than the sum of its parts. Parts are meaningful only in relation to the whole.

Is it worth having a goal, or plans, or resolutions?

Here is a little exchange:

Dizang asked "Where are you going?"
Fayan said "Around on pilgrimage."
Dizang asked "What is the purpose of pilgrimage?"
Fayan replied "I don't know."
Dizang responded "Not knowing is most intimate."

Replace the word pilgrimage in the third line with the word 'goals', or 'resolutions' or 'relationshsips'.

If through all of the information, chaos, infinite decisions, fuzziness and confusion that life throws, you somehow become aware of a clear goal or subject or area of interest or something that sparks something in you; then go for it, cling to that life raft.

The burning questions and ideas that keep coming back to you, they are your life koan. The ones you carry around with you your entire life.

It's up to you, the most important thing is to enjoy the process, to find things that are satisfying, and mostly these are things that are out of your comfort zone. The years are spinning on, you are wearing down, but there are still infinite moments to enjoy, little things. You can always learn and renew.

You don't need to retreat to the woods to 'suck the marrow out of life' or 'to live deliberately', you can do it in everyday humdrum life and make it meaningful. You don't need someone elses list of goals.

And of course, sometimes the best thing to do is binge watch a TV series on Netflix and have a beer.

It's a new morning, a new day, a new beginning, a new moment. It always is.

Happy New Year, have a good 2018 or whichever year you are in.

"Great understanding is broad and unhurried; little understanding is cramped and busy. Great words are clear and limpid; little words are shrill and quarrelsome. In sleep, people’s spirits go visiting; in waking hours, their bodies hustle. With everything they meet they become entangled. Day after day they use their minds. in strife, sometimes grandiose, sometimes sly, sometimes petty. Their little fears are mean and trembly; their great fears are stunned and overwhelming. They bound off like an arrow or crossbow bolt, certain that they are arbiters of right and wrong. They cling to their position as though they had sworn before the gods, sure that they are holding on to victory. They fade like fall into winter—such is the way they dwindle day by day. They drown in what they do—you cannot make them turn back. They grow dark, as though sealed with seals—such are the excesses of their old age. And as they draw near to death, nothing can restore their minds to the light."
- The complete works of Zhuangzi, Burton Watson translation, Ch, 2, p.8 
Other references:

The idea of infinite unknowable things, pilgrimage quote and John Tarrant quote taken from a day workshop on Freedom & Intimacy by Kevin Jikai Pickard at Zenways.

Nisbett, R (2015) Mindware. Tools for Smart Thinking. Penguin.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Give yourself a break.

It's that time of the year when half the population is eating their body weight in chocolate and promising themselves they are going to get fit and lose in January.

And another smaller group of people are panicking that they will not be able to go the gym on Christmas Day and Boxing Day, wondering when they will fit in arm day. And waking up in a cold sweat about their fat percentage increasing by 1% when the ambassador offers them one more ferrero rocher.

Why yes ambassador I will have another Ferrero Rocher (and tomorrow I will spend 3 hours in the gym guilt ridden).

This is aimed at the second group of people.

A break from training for a week or so will not make any difference unless:-

  • You are training for the 2018 Olympics.
  • You have a 100 mile race in late January.
  • You are stepping on stage and need to be contest ready in the middle of January.
If none of these apply give yourself a break.

A break will do you good.

This a good time for a deload week or two. Go easy, have some back off sessions, no heavy lifting, or if you are a runner some easy runs.

You may not be near your usual gym or usual running routes. Take some time to do something different. Do the opposite of what you normally do, if you normally lift heavy go for a jog or a run, if you normally do endurance work then do some body weight work or mobility.

If you normally train 4 or 5 times a week and can't guarantee your normal routine or you're not sure how many times a week you can train then go total body.

For example, pick one exercise from each of the following:

Vertical Pull
Vertical Push
Horizontal Pull
Horizontal Push
Quad dominant
Hip Dominant
Accessory - core/ arms/ whatever

Which could be something like:-

Dumbbell shoulder press
Seated Row
Lunge or goblet squat
Leg curl or dumbbell RDL
Plank or some bicep/ tricep supersets

2-3 sets of 10 to 15 reps.

Or if you don't have access to any equipment then try a simple body weight routine:

Press up
Body weight squat

Do a simple a ladder up routine, 1 rep of each then 2,3,4,5,6 up to 20.

Other things to consider:

A simple Christmas mobility routine, you spend days on end sitting down in a chair or in car stuck in traffic or stooped over a stove (or over a pint), time to reverse posture.

Something like:

Cat camel
Bird dog
Downward dog
Spidermans with overhead reach
Half kneeling hip flexor stretch with over head reach
Sit back into hamstring/ half splits stretch
Finish in puppy dog pose.

This is the type of routine you can bust out in your Christmas jumper. (In fact I will film it later this week and post it up).

But most importantly - ITS OKAY TO TAKE A DAY OFF!

Think outside the box.

You are in a house that has been centrally heated to the same temperature as the Sahara. This is a chance to do some heat acclimatization training for that desert race you have been considering. Put on your running kit and rucksack and run up and down the stairs.

Mass building phase. Been trying to bulk up and put on weight but can never get enough calories in? Now is your chance, you should have protein and carbs coming out of your ears. For once you can hit those 6000 calories. Train hard up to until Christmas day, over reach as  much as possible, then sit back and let the super-compensation happen while you watch you favourite Christmas film. You are literally resting for mass. Your biceps and quads will be growing as you lay there with the meat sweats.

How much does that turkey weigh? Quick press it over head for maximum reps before putting it in the oven, a chance for a sneaky shoulder workout.

Always wanted to get photo shoot ready? Now's your chance. Go low carb for the week before hand. Then start drinking alcohol from 8am Christmas day, bucks fizz, wine and beer should dehydrate you nicely combined with the indoor greenhouse, then add in all those carbs. Next thing you know, your muscles have refilled with glycogen, all the water has been drawn out from under your skin, you will be pumped and ripped and all you need to do is find someone to give you a fake tan on Boxing Day and get ready for that photoshoot. (Ask for a fake tanning kit as a gift, problem solved).

Burpee drink penalty. Every time you have a drink do 10 burpees.

Exercise food label. Use your Christmas gift tags to label the exact number of minutes of exercise it will take to burn off the calories in the food. Yes, labelling every Quality Street or Heroes will take some time.

Sleep penalty. First person to fall asleep has to do 50 mountain climbers or is made to join a crossfit gym in the new year.

Christmas cracker exercises. Get those crackers that you can put your own gifts and jokes in. Instead of jokes put in exercise routines. What better way to start dinner than 25 jumping jacks.

Television penalty. If anyone mentions any soap opera christmas special, 1000 burpee penalty. Enforce this.

Exercise charades. You have to mime a sport and everyone has to guess which one. For crossfitters, WOD charades, you start doing a WOD and everyone has to guess which one, of course that is Kelly or is that Fran? Wear the crossfit gear you got as a present while you do this.

Weighted cups and cutlery. You can be working on your biceps all day long. A great stocking filler.

Baileys protein shake. Of course you can put Baileys in a protein shake. And yes, I've now decided this is a real thing.

Protein eggnog. See above.

Alternatively, relax. Don't be so hard on yourself. Go for a walk in the fresh air. Don't get too stressed. All your progress will not be undone in one week. Consistency always wins, if you're consistent the rest of the year, give yourself a well earned break and enjoy yourself.

Christmas dinner is basically lean meat and vegetables. And if you are in the UK Boxing Day is more lean meats and vegetables.

All the stats about people putting on weight at Christmas and never losing it are about sedentary people with crappy diets all year round.

And as long as you don't drink until your liver dissolves or eat until you go into insulin shock, you'll be okay.

And hey, there's always next year.

May the Kwanzaa-bot bring you everything you wished for.
Happy Christmas one and all.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Getting Older (and training).

Do you need to train differently as you get older?

Recently there has been a spate of books and resources for the 'older' lifter, which the people providing these resources normally define as over 40. A few of them define it as over 30 or 35, which is of course laughable (these are normally the ones written by people in their 20's).

This trend seems to be because all the coaches writing these various programmes now find themselves in their 40's or 50's.

Full disclosure I haven't read any of the books aimed at the over 40 trainee or joined any of the online programmes ( I'm 43 by the way). I have purchased Bill Hartmans book on kindle but not read it yet. Therefore anything I write here is my take on it.

Notice I have generally referred to these as resources for the older 'lifter,' as most of the guys writing this stuff are coming from a lifting back ground and not so much the endurance background.

But do you need to train differently as you get older? Does anything need to change? And does it depend more on your training age or chronological age? Is it more to do with your training background, whether it be classic bodybuilding training, powerlifting, olympic weightlifting, endurance running 10k to 160k, or a sport like football (soccer)? And is it just a matter of getting wiser and not doing stupid stuff so much?

"Remember when you were you young, you shone like the sun"

When you're young you can pretty much get away with any stupid training regime and diet.

You can drink a gallon of milk, inhale some pre-workout, train for two hours, have a post workout KFC, go for a few beers, sleep in til 11am and repeat as necessary.

Remember those days you could spend 2-3 hours in the gym, with 30 minutes mobility, a chat, and a dedicated soleus and forearm day? No, me neither. Of course no one did any mobility work in the 1990's for a start.

And then you can do stupid stuff like deadlift maximum with no warm up because your friends are, keep running with an open wound on your foot because you want to finish a 5 day event, or run off a wall drunk in the dark, injure your knee and elbow, wake up covered in blood and don't bother seeking any medical treatment (okay, these are all things I did).

And then...

"With a boulder on my shoulder, feelin' kinda older"

One day you wake up and things hurt. And the bit that hurts keeps changing, it could be your shoulder, or lower back, or neck, or forearm, or t-spine or knee (or is that just me?).

If you made it into your 40's without any injuries you are either a replicant or never did anything stupid or pushed out of your comfort zone. Well done either way.

And all those guys that were squatting maximum everyday, well they had hip replacements. Maybe there was no correlation and they were going to get them anyway. Who knows. And training like a Bulgarian weightlifter is probably okay if you are genetically gift, chemically assisted and are only doing it for a short window of time to win something.

One day you wake up and realise you are going to face the grim reaper, which means you need to do 2 things: 1) Improve your chess game 2) Not knock on heavens door with a Dad-bod.

"So you're scared and you're thinking that maybe we ain't that young anymore"

Playing chess with death. Film reference for the day. The Seventh Seal. source:empire online magazine

I know quite a few guys lifting weights into their late 50's, and guys running into their 60's.

There are two interesting things I've observed, the guys still lifting in their 50's when I've talked to them never deadlifted or squatted heavy. Basically when they started in gyms in the UK there were no power racks, so they never did that type of training. And then when these things were popular they decided it was too late for them to take up that type of lifting. Coincidentally these guys don't have back or hip injuries, although they do have shoulder injuries from benching! These guys are still lifting heavier than I can on things like chest press, shoulder press, pulldowns etc.

And then you have the runners, there is some evidence that people are actually get faster in their 60's than in middle age. I know at least one runner in this age category who is still running sub 18 minute 5k and sub 35 minute 10k, on three short training sessions a week.

Of course, this is not a random sample, it is my biased sample. And it will be interesting too see how todays younger generation look in their 40's and 50's after training in the current milieu.

Its not the age, its the responsibility.

Another thing I've noticed about the guys writing these over 40 resources, it seems to be much more a factor of having children than aging.

And I know where they are coming from (I have a 2 year old son).

For example, there is a big trend at the moment about the importance of sleep and how you should be getting 8 hours a night. Any new parent is laugh manically at such a suggestion.

I used to run ultras but then realised I didn't need to run 100 miles to experience sleep deprivation, a young baby will do the same for you.

Getting woken up every 2 hours by the sound of a crying baby, then having to get up and train, your pre-workout meal now consists of a biscuit you found on the floor and a cup of tea you are drinking out a bowl because you can't find any cups. You then go to work, stick your head in a vat of caffeine, then return home, look into your partners eyes which have developed the 1000 yard stare of Dien Bien Phu veteran and start all over again. Yes, its a combination of Guantanamo Bay and Special Forces training but with more nappy changes.

Suddenly your priorities change, you need to do more time efficient sessions. You need to get back home, you are not sure if one week you will be able to train 2 or 3 or 4 times. You can't go for a 7 hour run on a Sunday, and you don't want to.

You can't always hit it hard, as you are knackered and you are not going to get that precious recovery sleep that all those sanctimonious 20 something coaches keep going on about; at this point you are so tired you can't even figure out how to fit the coloured blocks into the right holes in that toy your baby has. And you start doing yoga purely for the 10 minute relaxation at the end, where you hope to catch a quick powernap.

(Of course, you wouldn't change it for the world, and you get to carry the baby around in a rucksack, basically doing weighted vest steady state cardio wherever you go).

'The sun is the same in a relative way but you're older'

At this point let me point out there is a difference between chronological age and training age.

Some people don't start lifting weights until their 50's. I know at least 2 women who are lifting heavy weights for the first time in their 50's. This means the accumulated trauma hasn't happened yet, I know one has recently been injured from lifting heavy (as in powerlifting world record for her age heavy). Same with some guys I know who started lifting weights in their 30's. They have a golden period of high volume training, lack of any periodisation or back off weeks until one day something snaps. If you started in your teens or 20's it just snaps earlier.

Same for running, the earlier you started, the more chance you didn't start by training intelligently and you've had more time to wear yourself down and amplify any movement impairments.

But do not despair..

"Too old to rock n roll: Too young to die"

We live in a time of unprecedented training information and modalities. Look at the evolution of mobility over the last 10 years or so.

This means you have more training options than ever before.

Do you need to train differently as you get older? In short no. Unless your circumstances and injury profile dictate you should.

But its probably time to accept a few home truths.

You are probably not going to crossfit regionals
You are not stepping into the MMA octagon for a world championship
Your are not going to win UTMB
You are not going to a club on a Friday to impress anyone with your biceps
You are not playing in the premiership (and you should probably give up football if you value your ACL's and dignity)

However, this does not mean you cannot train hard, it doesn't have to be darts and golf unless that's what you like.

Having said all that here are my top tips:

  • Shorter more focused sessions.
  • If you are unsure how many times a week you can train, go total body each session. If you know you can 3 or 4 times a week, you don't have to do this.
  • Avoid too much spine compression, why are you heavy squatting, can you achieve the same in a different way?
  • Technique is paramount
  • Accept that some exercises are over for you. For example, due to an old injury I haven't done any dips for nearly 10 years. I still manage to work my triceps and chest without this exercise.
  • I like rest pause sets and descending sets to maximise time efficiency and overload with the minimum number of sets. For example, with rest pause, 2 warm up sets, then one set where you get 6-8 reps, rest 10 seconds, get 1 or 2 reps more, if you are feeling good, rest another 10 seconds and get another 1-2 reps.
  • You never need to do a 1 rep max
  • Variety is your friend - dumbbells, kettlebells, bands, yoga, bodyweight, sprints.
  • Meditate
  • Warm up
  • Mobilise, if pushed for time, pick 2 mobilisations for key areas you need to work on each session.
  • Power, stop those sarcomeres withering, keep those fast twitch fibres. Sprints, and jumps (but warm up first!, build up sets and sprint speed).
  • Strength, especially for endurance athletes do some strength work. 
  • Run up hills.
  • Probably stop drinking a gallon of milk a day.
  • Probably stop eating like a teenager on holiday in Magaluf.
  • Just keep going.
  • Feel free to ignore all of the above, you're old enough to know your body by now.
  • And if you are in your 70's enter Badwater or the Barkley Marathon, what've you got to lose?!
But most of all don't use age as an excuse, keep moving, keep learning.

(all things in quotes, songs, you can guess which ones, Springsteen, Pink Floyd, and even Jethro Tull for all the old heads).

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Walk like a monster for glute activation.

Glute training is the de-jour training of the last few years.

If anything has defined the recent fitness zeitgeist its glutes.

There are now approximately 40 zillion glute exercise variation videos available on instagram. But are they all worth it and effective?

And what if you want to progress a client from bodyweight side lying clamshells? Which exercise is the next step? . Of course, there are a 1000 next steps, but the ones I like are the side mini band walk (aka sumo walk, x-band walk) and monster walk. (Also band resisted clamshells, but I will post them in a separate video/blog).

I do see quite a few people in the gym these days with their own mini bands (mainly women - thanks Insta coaches). Butt (see what I did there) nearly all of them places the band around the knees for doing band walks and various squat exercises.

Is this the best placement?

Well no, the research shows (see Cambridge et al 2012) that to get more glute medius activation and less Tensor fascia latae the band should be lower down around the ankles or feet.

And the most glute max activation is when the band is around the forefoot. I am assuming that most of the women in the gym (and guys) are looking for more glute max activation for either injury rehab purposes, athletic purposes or lets face it aesthetic reasons. Therefore the optimal placing of the band would be around the forefoot and then next best would be around the ankles.

Why do it?

  • can help as part of a programme for lower back pain.
  • can help as part of a hip programme (my hips always feel better after it).
  • get more toned glutes!
  • athletic purposes, in which case always go in different directions.
  • warm up, activation and mobility either for a leg workout or sport.

In the 2 videos below my colleague Nick is demonstrating the side walk and monster walk. Now you may be asking why is the band around his ankles and not his forefoot, if forefoot is better? The answer is you can do both, but from a practical point of view the band around the foot can end up getting caught the floor depending on the surface you have, and the friction of the band on the floor can wear your band out quicker. But hey, try both.

Or the monster walk, I don't see too many people doing this one, but I find it hits the glutes just as much, all you have to do is pretend you are a zombie or Frankensteins monster!

  How to do it:

  1. Place band around the ankles or foot!
  2. Get into a quarter squat/ athletic position.
  3. Don't step too narrow, you will lose tension on the band.
  4. Don't step too wide, you will end up using your back and not your glutes. In fact, a common thing I see when looking at peoples lower backs while doing this, is their spine bending to the side and doing the movement and their hips are not really doing anything. Especially if someone is not used to using their glutes or activating them you will see this compensation.
  5. To stop the above happening, get some light core bracing. Also, getting the client/patient to put their hand on their waist and lower back, try and breathe diaphragmatically into that whole core region and be cognizant of not moving through the lower back.
  6. Also look out for the knees collapsing inwards, they don't have to be excessively forced out but you don't want to see knee collapse.
  7. Keep a good neck and shoulder position too.
  8. Top tip: a band around the ankle with bare skin can cause chaffing and pinching. Either wear longer socks or trousers/leggings. Or try the band around the foot position.
I like to do this exercise before a leg workout, just one or two sets of 10 in each direction. Or put it into your leg workout and superset with something like walking lunges or glutes thrusts.

For people with back pain, it might be one of the exercises you give them as part of their programme.

And as always, even though someone might be doing it on instagram there is no need to make this exercise more complicated by doing it sideways or backwards on an inclined treadmill or by jumping up the steps on a stairmill - yes I have seen people doing this in the gym!

If you want to feel a glute burn give these variations a go!


Cambridge E, Sidorkewicz N, Ikeda D, McGill SM (2012). Progressive hip
rehabilitation: The effects of resistance band placement on gluteal activation during two
common exercises. Clin. Biomech. 27:719-724

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Do this single leg exercise.

In the video below you can see me demonstrating a single leg balance exercise with multi-directional reach. Aka Star Balance aka Y Balance. Or if you really want to impress your friends call it a multiplanar exercise in the sagittal, frontal and transverse plane.

Of course, I didn't invent this exercise. As mentioned above, the Star Balance has been used for a long time in physio circles as an assessment and the FMS guys use the Y balance.

Why do it?

So much of gym work takes place on two feet and is very linear. The rise of S&C, squats and deadlifts are a good thing, but there is another dimension to training that should be addressed. Lateral movement and single leg work should also be part of a well rounded programme.

This exercise is good for

  • anyone who needs balance training, fall prevention
  • running or any sport that requires you to be on one leg
  • post ankle, hip or knee injury to help build up proprioception (being aware of where you joints and body are in space) and strength.
  • as part of a warm up drill
In the video I am reaching as far as I can in each direction, and I am using three directions (Y shape). But if someone has had a recent injury, is starting to work on their balance or is recovering from something such as a stroke then the movement can be small. Some other key points:

  1. You could hold onto a chair to begin with and then try and do it with just finger tips resting on the chair.
  2. Try and maintain spine integrity, it is unloaded so I wouldn't worry about some spine flexion, but try and hinge from the hips.
  3. Keep an eye on that support knee, you don't want it collapsing in excessively.
  4. Also think about neck position, keep the back of your neck smooth.
  5. You can reach with the arms as well.
You can also do a reach forward with the leg (which I don't do in the video). Kind of like a mini pistol or heel dig. For some people this causes more issues with the knee and spine bending, so listen to your body. For others it helps to strengthen the muscles around the knee.

I used this exercise when running, and I think it helped me rehab a niggling knee issue I had. I think it also helped as I increased the miles and do more and more trail running.

You may feel it in the muscles around the hips and pelvis. I can particularly feel a stretch in the outer hip when I reach the leg behind me across the midline of the body.  It is also working the muscles around the knee and ankle.

This exercise is not trying to isolate anything, it is integrating the limbs and torso as happens in real life. You want your hips, knees and ankles to respond reflexively when running, jumping or even stepping down a curb.

Do three or four circuits on each leg as part of your warm up, or do it at any point during the day.
There is no need to 'progress' this exercise, you don't have to add in weight or stand on a bosu.

Keep it simple and effective.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Hill Sprints. Do Them!

In short: find a hill, run as hard as you can up it, rest, repeat a few times then run home. Feel better, look better.
Hills sprints are a great addition to your training.
They are not just for runners who want to improve their speed in shorter distances like 5k. But for anyone who wants to improve power and strength.
And for leg development (quads and glutes my friends). Have you ever seen a sprinter with poor legs!
They are also great for improving conditioning. I would also use them at the start of a phase for a long distance athlete (10k, marathon, and ultra distances).
If you don’t have access to a prowler or sled, hill sprints are the 'go to' for field athletes that need power and strength.
Of course, I didn’t invent hill sprints. I first became aware of them from running coach Brad Hudson, and by his own admission he took his approach from coach Renato Canova, who in turn took them from sprint coach Bud James.
According to Hudson (2008), hill sprints will
  • Strengthen running muscles
  • Make the runner less injury prone
  • Increase power and efficiency of stride
  • Take little time
  • are fun to do!
But they also have benefits for the non runner.
Power is about recruiting more fast twitch muscle fibres. It is about building fast strength, not grinding strength. It is what makes athletes explosive.
A maximal hill sprint is about maximal muscle fibre recruitment in one of the safest and least technically demanding ways.
Traditional training for this would include the Olympic lifts, plyometrics (jumps, bounding) and medicine ball throws.
However, many of these methods are technically demanding. To get the most out of Olympic lifts, you need someone to coach you to make sure you are competent. And you need access to the equipment. Plyometrics are also technically demanding and there is a large amount of force going through joints and tendons when you land.
Hill sprints require no equipment. As you are running on a steep hill you are not absorbing force in the same way as when you jump off a box.
Power is the missing element in many peoples training. They may lift weights and work on strength in lifts such as the deadlift and squat. They may do hypertrophy training. They may do steady state endurance training. They may even do some conditioning – but this is not power.
As you get older power gets more important to train. And of course, for athleticism you need some power training.
Hill sprints are part of the training puzzle.
Hill repetitions help build the ‘fitness bridge’between strength and speed.” (Hudson, p.81)
Of course, there is no reason why your training can't consist of Olympic lifts, plyometrics and hill sprints.
Why not flat sprints?
Many years ago a myself and a colleague ran a boot camp. As part of it we incorporated some track sprints. We had screened all the participants before hand to make sure they were injury free, did a long warm up and some build up sprints. Then we got them to sprint a bit harder, and 8 out of 10 of them suddenly grasped the middle of their quad.
What had happened? It was a rectus femoris strain. As their psoas muscle wasn’t used to having to flex the hip, suddenly the rectus femori was trying to flex the hip and straighten the knee fast, while putting in a near maximal effort. The muscle was pulled in 2 different directions and the middle of the muscle couldn’t cope and got strained.
As strength coach Mike Boyle says in is his book Functional Training for Sports
The athlete will use the rectus femoris to create hip flexion. This can result in the mysterious quad pull seen in sprinters or on forty-yard dash day in football.”
(A similar thing can also happen in the hamstrings, where the hamstring tries to bend the knee and extend the hip as the glutes aren’t doing their job, this can also result in pain at the front of the hip, that the person attempts to correct by stretching, when in fact it is not tight. Thanks to physio Shirley Sahrmann for that!).
Flat sprinting is more technical than hill sprints. Hill sprints actually make your technique better, it is making you drive into the hill with the front part of the foot and use the posterior chain, it is making you lean, there is less shock absorption going on. There is less impact.
Plus on tracks, everyone feels the need to sprint 100 or 200m. And if you are putting in maximal effort, this is actually a very long way! Usain Bolt may make it look easy, but not until you’ve tried it do you realise it is hard to keep form, technique and effort over those distance.
It is much better to think of the shorter sprints of American sports like the NFL, where the 40 yard dash (36 metres) is the staple. A much shorter distance and time under tension.
Or if you are doing hill sprints, think about no more than 8 seconds to begin with.
Why not use the treadmill?
On the one hand you can control the exact gradient and speed on the treadmill.
However, I don’t find treadmills very good for very short maximal sprints of 8-10 seconds.
It takes too long to increase the speed up to where you want it. Or for extra danger, you can try jumping onto it after you have built it up to the speed you want to go. The first method makes the sprint too long and you are not going at max effort at the start. With the second method, all the benefits of driving hard to overcome inertia are loss, so some the muscle adaption is lost.
I would only use the treadmill for sprints of 30secs or longer interval work.
First of all build up!
If you are a beginner they will put a massive amount of load and stress on your joints and muscles. And as a beginner you may not be able to sprint at all, but can do some faster efforts.
Yes, in the long term they should help prevent injury and improve muscle recruitment, but you have to gradually progress.
Hudson recommends starting on a hill with a 6-8% gradient, and then going to a hill with a 10% gradient. In practice, you probably just have to find the steepest hill you can near you.
My preferred format is:
  • jog, easy run to the hill you are going to use. About 7-12mins for me depending on the hill I’m running to.
  • A couple of easy build up ‘sprints’, really more like striding out (pushing slightly above your coomfortable pace), for about 8-10 seconds. If you’re are a beginner, this might be all you do.
  • Use the arms, lean in to the hill, visualise the glutes firing as you drive into the hill. Relax the face and shoulders.
  • Walk back down to start, nice and easy between each effort. Or if it is a really long hill, I gradually make my way to the top, resting by walking across the hill between each rep.
  • Then increase the effort, now near maximal for 2 x 8-10secs.
  • Err on the side of caution, less time is better, 6-8 seconds might be enough.
  • Then jog/ run home.
  • Total session time is 20-30mins.
I would then increase the number of sprints by 1 or 2 a week.
Most runners will achieve as much strength and power improvement as they can get by doing 10-12 hill sprints of 10-12 seconds each, twice a week.” (Hudson, p82)
Personally I think for the general athlete, once a week is enough. And 5 or 6 sprints might also be enough. Of course, it depends on how much time you have. Its also about listening to your body, if I start to lose speed and intensity on the sprints I stop, its no longer a maximal effort session.
You can also use markers us the hill such as trees, and sprint between them, gradually making your way up the hill, again making sure these are very short sprints. A kind of short burst hill sprint fartlek.
You could also be doing once every 2 weeks as part of a general training plan.
Even for an ultra runner I would still sprinkle them through a training cycle to stop them adopting the classic one speed, one gear, ‘ultrashuffle’, and problems of over use of the same muscles.
For a runner, you might then start to use longer hill repeats, 30-60seconds. Or if training for very long distances, I used hill repeats that were 1k or 1 mile long. (Of course, these are no where near maximal effort, and are about endurance and technical efficiency for mountain/trail running).
But I think these benefits go beyond runners. For the general athlete, and general population they are great for building strength, power, developing the legs and I believe do help with injury prevention. (and of course help you lose weight and tone up, joke).
But mostly you do them to go maximal, at the end you are stooped over with your heart beating hard and unable to catch your breath, your are in the moment, there isn't anything else to think about.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Who Are You? The type of person who exercises?

You hear it all the time:

I'm no good at maths
I can't run
I'm no good with computers
I can't do this or that
I'm no good at learning languages
I'm not that type of person
I'm not a gym person
I'm more of a .....insert here what you believe you are... type of person.

Only yesterday I heard a guy in a coffee shop tell his friend he didn't have an ear for languages. And yet, he had learned one language fluently, the one he was speaking. He then told his friend he had an A-level in French. Despite this he had decided he was the type of person who was not good at learning languages.

At what point did you decide that was the type of person you were?
At what point did you decide there was a certain skill set you did not posses or there was a certain skill set that was your strong point?
Were you a child or a teenager? At what point did you think this is me?
And how many times have you changed your mind as an adult?

People adopt a series of habits and patterns and rituals and they become them.

Professor Michael Puett in his book The Path, about how we can apply some of the lessons of ancient Chinese philosophy to our modern lives, states

"What we in the West define as the true self is actually patterns of continuous responses to people and the world; patterns that have built up over time. For example, you might think, I'm just the type of person who gets annoyed easily. On the contrary, it's more likely that you have become the kind of person who does get irritated over minor things because of how you've interacted with people for years. But that's not because you are, in fact, such a person." (p.43)

A bad experience with maths or PE at school and that's you for life. Suddenly you are the type of person who doesn't like exercise or running.

Also, its easy, if that's who you are, then you never have to change, its just the type of person you are, its not your fault, you don't have to try new things.

Now this doesn't mean you have to try everything new thing in the world, every new activity. You don't have to be 'good' at everything and 'like' everything. For example, I'm never playing golf or watching Britains Got Talent.

Also, I'm not saying you have to be excellent at everything. There is a lot of ground in between saying 'I can't run' and being Mo Farah. And if you're not 7 foot tall you're probably not going to play in the NBA but you can still enjoy basketball.

However, don't dismiss activities because they may be hard or push you out of your comfort zone.

How many people leave school and never learn anything new? The pattern is set. It congeals and rusts.

You learned a series of habits and rituals and you accept them, you greet people in a certain way, in the West you use a knife and fork to eat, you drive on a certain side of the road - these were all learned - they are not you.

"We cling to a fixed idea of who we are and it cripples us. Nothing and no one is fixed." - Pema Chodron (2001)

There is no core self. It changes all the time. In the words of Chuck Palahniuk

But this means at any time you could start to choose something else, pick different 'china patterns', sit in a different place, brush your teeth with the wrong hand, be the type of person who buys a bicycle and cycles to work!

Was your view on the world and personality set by 16 years old by a few teachers, parents and friends. It doesn't mean you have to reject all this, and form a whole new personality, but don't be limited, build on this.

As a kid you learned the most complex things possible - how to walk, talk and read. And then at certain point many adults think, well I'm an adult now, I don't have try things that I may fail at or make me look 'bad', I will not push the envelope, I will seal it up and stay inside of it.

And if you only perceive the world in a certain way, and have already decided that you are not the type of person who takes up cycling or goes to a yoga, where does that leave you?

"But remember that who you think you are - and especially what you think is 'you' when you are making decisions - is usually just a set of patterns you've fallen into." (Puett & Gross- Loh, 2016).

And before you know it you never push out of your comfort zone or try something new.

Learning new things is fantastic for your brain health, learning new languages and new skills makes your brain form new connections. And the other thing that is good for brain health is exercise.

And this is where exercise rears its head. So many people like the idea of say running or being 'fit', but no, I can't do that, I'm not fit enough to go to a gym (cue flashback to running around a field in the snow at school while half the class hide behind the cricket pavilion for a smoke).

Its not easy.

Even confident successful people can crumble when faced with a new skill. Only the other day I was showing a lady around the gym, she was confident in herself, knew she wanted to get fit, she went on the cardio machines no problem, a few resistance machines no problem. Then we tried a goblet squat with a kettlebell, we were standing in the dreaded freeweights area. Her technique needed a bit of work, she couldn't get it straight away like she had on the machines. She was pitching forward a bit, had a bit of knee collapse. I gave her a bit of coaching, said not to worry, it was a new movement, just practice a bit and she would get it after a few sessions. But no, for her this was disastrous.

The next session in the gym she was adamant she did not like the goblet squat, did not want to do it again, despite the fact at this point she had probably only done 20 reps total in her life, and spent 2 minutes on the exercises. But because she had not grasped the technique and skill instantaneously she did not want to continue.

I have had a similar thing even on cardio equipment, a cross trainer that's a bit different to what people are used to, you say you just need to do this and this, and the technique needs a bit of work and next thing they are saying 'I don't like this machine I want to get off', after 90 seconds. This is code for 'I didn't come here to learn a new skill, or feel like you are judging me, or to look like I can't do something, I am adult now, I don't need anyone to teach me anything'.

What they expected and reality don't match and their brain doesn't like it, the ego kicks in, fear kicks in.

It is hard to break habits, set new patterns and learn new things, as Anders Ericsson says in his book Peak

"Getting started is easy, as anyone who has visited a gym after New Year's knows. You decide that you want to get in shape or learn to play the guitar or pick up a new language, and so you jump right in...Then after a while, reality hits. It'd hard to find the time to work out or practice as much as you should... you start missing sessions. You're not improving... It's why gyms that are were crowded in January are only half full in July. So that's the problem in a nutshell: purposeful practice is hard." (kindle edition of the book)

But as adults, its easy to duck out, no one is making us go back to school or go to the gym. The television and social media feeds are waiting to anaesthetize us as the end of another hard day.

My friend is learning to play guitar, its hard, he's an adult with a job. I can explain and show him things on the guitar which are easy to me, because I learned them when I was a teenager. Conversely, this same friend is a very good rock climber, he has been climbing for years. I'm trying to be better at climbing, but compared to him I'm terrible. He can free climb something in his flip flops which looks like El Capitan to me. But we are both trying to push out of our comfort zone, willing to fail and let go of that ego a little bit.

Ericsson talks about practice

"The hallmark of purposeful or deliberate practice is that you try to do something you cannot do - that takes you out of your comfort zone - and that you practice it over and over again, focusing on exactly how you are doing it, where you are falling short, and how you can get better. Real life - our jobs, our schooling, our hobbies - seldom gives us the opportunity for this sort of focused repetition..."

Fitness is a skill, many people perceive themselves as time poor, I don't have time to learn these exercises, I just need to get fit and lose weight. This is missing the point. They don't want it to be a skill or a process, they don't really want to change anything.

The future is wide open.

Something inside us likes the world to be stable and fixed, but if you never explore new things you may never find parts of you that you never knew existed. You go to a zumba class and suddenly find out you love dancing, you avoided swimming your whole life because you lacked confidence, you get a few lessons and suddenly you enjoy going for a swim to clear your head and like using the pool on holiday. You get the idea.

As coaches, it is up to us to show this to clients.

In 2009 I walked into a book shop in London and bought a book by Christopher McDougall. It was about a sport I hardly knew anything about; ultra running. Then a few years later I saw one of the lead protagonists talk in London. A couple of years after that I went to Leadville and run a 100 miles in a race that seemed mythical and for super humans to me 5 years before. If I had a fixed idea of who I was none of this would have happened.

Its funny how things end up.

So the final word to that person I saw talk in London, Caballo Blanco. During the talk someone asked him 'Can anyone run 100 miles?'. He answered 'If they want to'.

Can you be the type of person who exercises?
If you want to.

Can you change?
If you want to.
This applies to all things.


For my tribute to Caballo and my thoughts when I went to see him talk

On why it is hard to form a new habit and how to do it

On how habits are embedded in your memory and how you become them

On habits and choices

Michael Puett & Christine Gross-Loh (2016) The Path.

Anders Ericsson & Robert Pool. Peak, Secrets from the new science of expertise. Kindle edition quoted.

Pema Chodron (2001) The places that scare you.