Thursday, December 29, 2016

My Best Books of 2016

This is my list of the best books of 2016. Most were released in 2016 but a few were not, but this happened to be the year I read them.

I have broken the list into non-fiction, fiction and biography. Hopefully it will give you some ideas if you are looking for something to read.

Some books I read.


My non fiction reading this year was dominated by the 'smart thinking' genre, how to improve your ability to learn new skills and be more productive,  as well as a smattering of neuroscience.

So without further ado.

Peak: Secrets from the new science of expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool.

Eric Anderson is the guy who did the research that led to the popular idea (myth) of 10,000 hours of practice to be an expert in something.

In the book he goes into much more detail than the authors who have quoted him. He gives you all the research and practical advice on how to engage in purposeful practice and deliberate practice.

This is a must for coaches. Reading through the quotes I highlighted I realised I need to read this again.

There are so many gems in this book, but here are two.


"...whenever possible, the best approach is almost always to work with a good coach or teacher. An effective instructor will understand what must go into a successful training regimen and will be able to modify it as necessary to suit individual students."

"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."

Deep Work by Cal Newport.

I have written about this book before here.

In the age of distraction to focus and do quality work you need to remove yourself from environments that don't work for you.

Newport suggests quitting social media, which I have done a few times (easier said than done) limiting emails, and avoiding the open plan office working space ( I can attest to the fact it is the least productive environment in the world).

Hats off to Newport for coining the term 'pseudo-work' which is what most people are doing most of the day; reacting to email, looking busy but not actually doing anything.

I need to employ Newport's strategies in 2017.

Grit: The power of passion and perserverance by Angela Duckworth.

In short, successful people stick with things and don't give up easily.

I found Duckworth's book more anecdotal than Ericsson's, and at one point she interviews Ericsson and asks him how to improve her running, he recommends she gets a coach!


"The bottom line on culture and grit is: If you want to be grittier, find a gritty culture and join it. If you're a leader, and you want the people in your organisation to be grittier, create a gritty culture."

"As any coach or athlete will tell you, consistency of effort over the long run is everything."

The Art of Learning: An inner journey to optimal performance by Josh Waitzkin.

This got mentioned in the Learning How to Learn MOOC weekly email.

Written by a guy who became a chess champion at a very young age and then became a Tai Chi champion.

He tells you what strategies he employed to get there. I actually enjoyed the chess sections the most.


"The secret is that everything is always on the line. The more present we are at practice, the more present we will be in competition, in the boardroom, at the exam, the operating table, the big stage. If we have any hope of attaining excellence, let alone of showing what we've got under pressure, we have to be prepared by a lifestyle of reinforcement. Presence must be like breathing."

The Idiot Brain: A neuroscientist explains what your head is really up to by Dean Burnett.

Covering such things as why you get motion sickness, why clever people lose arguments, why you get addicted to things and why your memory is unreliable.

Written for the lay person, the author explains neuroscience concepts really well, and I also like the British sense of humour that the author has.

Pivot: The only move that matters is your next one by Jenny Blake.

I like the central premise of the book. You don't have to completely give up what you are doing now, you can pivot out of your current situation (if you so wish) with a more low risk strategy of side projects and a plan.

We don't all work at Google or in offices but the strategy is overall a good one.

Do Fly: Find your way. Make a living. Be your best self by Gavin Strange.

I really like to 'Do' series of books, they are easy to read, you can read them in less than a day. They are deceptively simple but full of good advice.

The are also really well designed in terms of layout and graphics.

Excerpt from Do Fly.


I don't read much fiction, one of my goals for 2017 is to read more fiction. But here are the stand out fiction books for me.

The Circle by David Eggers.

Imagine a world in the not too distance future (as in now) where a corporation that is a combination of Facebook and Google controls everything.

If you like Charlie Brookers Black Mirror you will like this book.

It has been made into a film due for release next year. So read it now before the film comes out and you can be one of the cool kids.

Led me to also read his first book A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius, an autobiographical novel where both of Egger's parents die and he has to bring up his younger brother.


"Your comment on things, and that substitutes for doing them."

Stoner: A novel by John Williams.

Published 50 years ago. Tag line: the greatest book novel you've never read.

The prose in this book is stunning, one mans entire life. Not a heros life, but an ordinary, average, heart breaking life which most of us lead.


Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen.

Because its Springsteen autobiography, enough said.

But it turns out his early life is a mixture of On The Road and Bukowski characters with prose to match.

If you want to see an example of Ericssons purposeful practice in real life then read Springsteens book. That's how you become good at something.

If I had read this when I was 18 I would have probably headed west and slept on the beach with my guitar.


"Back east we usually experience the freedom that comes with a good snowstorm. No work, no school, the world shutting its big mouth for a while, the dirty streets covered over in virgin white, like all the missteps you've taken have been erased by nature. You can't run; you can only sit. You open your door on a trackless world, your old path, your history, momentarily covered over by a landscape of forgiveness, a place where something new might happen."

Which is kind of how I've always felt about snow but never managed to articulate like Bruce does.

That's the list for 2016.

And in 2017.

I still have a few books I need to finish reading. Neurophilosophy and the Health Mind by Georg Northoff and Decisions, Uncertainty, and the Brain: The Science of Neuroeconomics by Paul Glimcher. These are part of my project to see if you can teach yourself the equivalent of a masters degree in Neuroscience. (Which I will write about another time).

I also have a plan to read more fiction. I have a list of classics to read, you know the ones that always appear on the greatest books of all time lists.

So far I'm thinking:

Tolstoy - Anna Karenina or War and Peace
Dickens -  David Copperfield or Great Expectations
Proust -  In Search of Lost Time (started but never finished)
Steinbeck -  Grapes of Wrath
Hemingway - For Whom the Bell Tolls
Hunger by Knut Hamsun
Anathem by Neal Stephenson, which I saw mentioned somewhere.

And today I bought Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway, so that will be the one I start with.

Non fiction:
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers by Robert M Sapolsky.

I better start employing Cal Newports ideas if I'm going to fit all these in!

What do you plan on reading, what are your top book recommendations for next year? What fiction books should I add to my list? What inspired you in 2016?

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Top 6 Cardio Exercises of all Time!

Everything comes full circle. 30 years ago it was all about aerobic exercise. Then in the last 10 years there was a backlash - anything above 5 reps was cardio, and there was no need to do steady state cardio. Then all you needed was HIIT and Tabatas. And now LISS is back being mentioned by strength coaches.

As always, the truth lies in the middle way. There are numerous benefits to cardio exercises and doing some is a good thing. In fact the number one thing you can do for your brain health and memory is aerobic exercise, it's way better than any smart drug.

So without further ado here is my top 6 cardio exercise choices. I have tried to have a selection that incorporates things that require no equipment, and things you can do in the gym (depending on how well equipped your gym is). These happen to be the things I like.

Number 1: Walking.

Walking is the best exercise you can do for your health. It is good for heart and lung function, improves blood sugar levels and even more impressively

Walking also

You can walk 20-30mins a days, it requires no special equipment.

If you are a beginner or looking for something with all round benefits and low injury risk then walking should be your number one choice.

Top Tips: 

Walking in nature has been shown to improve cognitive function (memory) and has a calming and peaceful effect. It improves memory over and above walking in an urban environment.

Also walking on uneven ground will help strengthen ankles, proprioception and is therapeutic for the lower back, and is a more interesting than pounding the pavement.

Stuart McGill (2002; 83) has shown that walking with a backpack weighing 10kg on uneven ground has actually been shown to REDUCE compression on the spine and relieve symptoms of certain types of back pain.

Make sure you swing the arm from the shoulders and no window shopping walking!

Number 2: Stairmill.

Aka stairmaster.

I made sure we got a couple of these for our gym 4 or 5 years ago. Now I see they are becoming more popular for good reason.

This is my number one choice for gym based cardio exercise. There is nowhere to hide on the stairmill, you can't drift off or coast. You are relentlessly walking up stairs. Your heart rate goes up with very little impact on knees and hips.

When training for long ultraruns the stairmill was part of my cross training.  As anyone who has run an ultra in a mountain environment knows at some point you are going to hit a hill that you are going to have to walk up. I would say it prepared me for long power hikes up hills and mountains better than almost anything else.

Top Tips:

Try not to hold on. This may be difficult at first as you have to concentrate on not missing a step. Or try not holding on for a minute at a time at lower levels.

To increase difficulty and to prepare for mountain races where you are carrying your gear try it with a weighted vest; 30 mins with a 10kg vest on will make you a believer!

Number 3: Hill sprints.

I think I first got these from running coach Brad Hudson, where he uses them at a start of a running phase to build strength.

Go for very short sprints, 8-10 secs.  Start with 5 sets, build up to 10. After a warm up jog to the hill, start with some build up sprints. Recovery is a slow walk back to the start. All you need to do is find a steep hill.

The mechanics of sprinting are much improved for most people uphill compared to the flat. The chance of muscle pull or injury sprinting up hill are much lower. Lets face it, most of us (including me) haven't been coached to sprint, and running uphill helps you to engage posterior chain muscles and drive hard.

Top Tips: 

Find a hill outside. You can do these on a treadmill, but the time it takes you to increase and decrease speed on a treadmill is not conducive to short sprints. If you are using a treadmill go for 5-10% gradient.

If outside, find a hill, if you can find a long hill, 1 mile or longer, you can gradually make your way up the hill.

Number 4: Ski Erg.

From the people who brought you the most reliable piece of cardio equipment ever, the Concept 2 Rower, comes the Ski Erg.

Cross country skiing is a phenomenal cardio exercise, and in fact the only winter sport I can do without falling over every 10 seconds, and the only one I've ever received any coaching for. But unless you live in Norway actual cross country skiing is not a cardio option.

Not many gyms have Ski Ergs yet, and I've only just used one, but it is well worth it. One of the few cardio exercises that truly is hitting the upper body, I actually got a tricep pump!

It's a good finisher after a workout, seems to help to get the blood flowing in the upper body.

Or do some intervals, 10-15 secs with 45-50 sec recovery. 5-10mins on this machine is enough, unlike walking or the stairmill I wouldn't be doing this for 30-60 minutes.

Top tips:

If you don't know how to cross country ski, watch some technique videos online of the Ski Erg or even some pro skiers using the double pole technique. You can vary the technique on the machine, one leg at a time like skater technique of cross country, alternate arms like classic cross country or double pole for maximum power.

Get a full body extension and hinge at the hips.

Number 5: Versaclimber.

A total body exercise. They haven't changed the design of this machine since the original Robocop was released, and it is over priced if you are going to buy one, but nothing takes your heart rate up like this.

A cross crawl movement pattern, engaging upper and lower body. This is hard, use as a finisher or in a conditioning workout or at the start of a stubborn fat loss protocol workout, anymore than 5-7 mins and you are doing well.

Top tips:

The handles adjust. Try different lengths of pull and stride to see what works best for you.

Number 6: What you enjoy.

Of course, the best cardio exercise is the one you enjoy and have access to. If you like mountain biking or rowing do those. Or it could be badminton or a studio class like spinning.

The best exercise is the one you do.

Nearly made the top 6:

Other things to consider.


Didn't make the top 6, as some people don't seem to be able to skip, therefore they don't really get any cardio benefit from it. I guess that's why Gray Cook called it a 'self limiting exercise'. If you can skip and have access to an area with a good surface to skip on, it's a great exercise.

Prowlers and sleds: 

If you have access to these with an indoor track I would definitely use them. If you don't, hill sprints are the way forward. These days it is more likely that your gym has a prowler or sled than it does a Versaclimber or Ski Erg.

Also I would consider prowlers and sleds hybrid exercises. Go light and explosive or go heavy and use them as a strength exercise or hypetrophy training.

Get moving.

Your body doesn't know how you got your heart rate up. As long as you are using a mixture of some low intensity longer and higher intensity shorter work you'll be covered.

What's your favourite cardio exercise, is it something I haven't thought of? Let me know.


McGill S (2002) Low Back Disorders. Evidence Based Prevention and Rehabilitation.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Online coaches: I'm not doing your job for you.

Has Instagram killed coaching?

We live in a post truth world. Donald Trump is President- elect, Brexit happened, and anyone with an instagram account is a fitness expert.

Now let me say straight off, there are some good online coaches. Ones who take time to skype their client, build rapport and construct an individual programme and nutrition plan.

And you could say if its not harming you or interfering with your work, why comment?

But online programming and 'coaching' has encroached on my work, I offer three examples below. It gives an insight into what the public are buying...

Example 1: £300 for a programme, and the instructors at the gym have to show you the exercises.

A young girl came into the gym with a programme she had bought from an online trainer. This girl was not very experienced in the gym and didn't really know any of the exercises on her programme. The person she had bought the programme from had provided some video links, but not for all the exercises.

She asked us for some help and we showed her a few of the exercises, and said she should contact the trainer again for more advice. The trainer was relatively local, and her answer was, the young girl could pay for a session with her to show her the exercises and that the "instructors in the gym have to show you all the exercises, its their job."

Hang on, its my job to show someone all the exercises in a programme that you got paid £300 for? Even if I think the programme is no good and the exercise choices are sub par? Bear in mind this would take hours of coaching to get her where she could do the programme with competence.

The young girl was quite upset by the whole thing and asked me what she could do. I suggested going back to the trainer, trying to get her money back, maybe contact REPs (if this trainer was a member of REPs), look at distance selling law, if she paid by credit card or paypal may be try to recoup the money.

In the end she wrote a thank you note for all our help, I don't know if she got her money back. The online trainer is probably still selling online programmes to beginners who can't do them.

Example 2: 90% 1RM of a rear delt flye.

A guy approached me in the gym to check out his rear delt flye technique. I had a look and said he probably needed to reduce the weight and focus on technique as he was only getting partial range with a lot of momentum.

He then told me his programme told him that this week was strength week and he had to do 90% 1RM of a rear delt flye for 3 reps. He then showed me on his phone the actual programme and there it was.

I explained in my opinion the rear delt flye was an accessory exercise, it should always be in a higher rep range and you would never try to workout the 1RM on a rear delt flye. The programme looked professional, nicely presented, but looking good and actually being good are two different things.

Now there are a few possible explanations. First, the person writing the programme committed a copy and paste error and never intended that exercise to be a 90% 1RM. Second, they have never actually trained anyone and don't realise this will not work. Thirdly, they train people all the time and use this method effectively. I'll let you decide which it is.

Example 3: 1100kcals a day and white potatoes only.

A young girl who comes to the gym showed me a nutrition plan that her sister had purchased off of an instagram coach and she was following it as well.

The calories per day were worked out on based on their weight in kilos. With a bodyweight of just over 60kg the plan had worked out that several days per week her caories were down in the 1100 to 1200 range and on the higher calories days it went to 1600-1700kcals.

Now will you lose weight on this? Probably. Will you feel miserable? Probably. Is it sustainable? Probably not. Does it give young girls an unhealthy relationship with food?

I've seen women getting contest ready and going on stage eating more than this.

It also looked highly scientific as the guy who wrote it had used a spreadsheet, and the calories had been worked out to the decimal point, yep he knew you could eat 100.4kcals of egg white.

There were also some other restrictive 'bro' elements. White potatoes only, that's right no sweet potato allowed. Egg whites only. Very low fat. And of course, a recommendation that you supplement with a special fat burner made by a company you've never heard of.

As it turned out, I did a few quick calculations and the calories the plan said was lower than what I was coming out with.

It was basically an old school bodybuilding diet designed for a man.

I explained that I thought the calories were too low, and there was nothing magical about white potatoes, yes, she could eat sweet potatoes with no adverse effects. I also suggested eating an avocado might help bump up the fat levels from its current very low levels.

So what does all this tell us about online coaching?

Are the public being mis-sold?

The world of instagram coaching is the wild west,  how does someone differentiate? Yes, you can say market forces will out, but with an increasingly crowded market place image becomes everything.

The entry level is low, you need some social media accounts, a website and if you want to really look professional an off the shelf fitness app. You can even be legit and get a level 2 fitness qualification. This is not the fault of the people doing it, they got the qualification they needed. Its not their fault there is no quality control. There are very few instagram lawyers or medical consultants for a reason, the barrier to entry is high.

Could it be the Dunning Kruger* effect in action?

This theory states that some low ability individuals overestimate their ability. They think they are great, and 100% right. In fact, they are terrible but just don't know it. These coaches could all believe they are brilliant offering a superb product. Whereas real experts in a field can doubt their ability, don't always have black and white answers, know how complex something can be and say 'it depends' a lot.

Unskilled people can have nearly 100% confidence even though they are incompetent. See Donald Trump for further evidence. Picture

Here are my easy steps to becoming an instagram coach.

one for women and one for men.

For men

1) Selfie up, you will need a baseball cap, Beats headphones and a vest made of 2cm square of material.
2) Superset bicep curls and D-bol.
3) Enter a fitness competition, any competition, or get some professional photos done.
4) Get a sponsorship deal with a supplement company no one has heard of.
5) Create a logo, something cool like a skull chewing a barbell.
6) You are now ready to sell programmes and nutrition plans.

For women

1) Take selfies with minimal clothing on.
2) Shoot videos of you training in the gym with minimal clothing on.
3) Booty shoots and training are in the zeitgeist, focus on them.
4) Get a deal with a weightloss tea, make sure your selfies include a shot of you with the tea.
5) You are now ready to sell nutrition plans and programmes.
6) Don't tell anyone that your glutes and abs look like that because of your Brazilian genetics and surgical enhancements and not due to the random selection of exercises you post up or the weightloss tea. (Full disclosure I click on pictures of Brazilian fitness models as much as the next guy).

I get it, it seems like a good career. You like training, and got good results, so why not make a living from it. Write some programmes and sell them to people. No need to go to an actual gym to train people, all that effort of having to tweak things, change things, focus on technique.

But here's the rub, as my colleague Paul has said about instagram coaches posting up selfies and competition pictures "all you've demonstrated is the ability to follow a programme and nutrition plan, probably written by someone else" it does not mean you have the ability to coach other people or that the concepts that worked for you will work for someone else.

The problem with online coaching is it focuses on the programme.

As I've stated before for most people, the programme could be the least important thing. As my colleague Nick has said "I could give you George St Pierres programme, it doesn't mean it will work for you or you will become George St Pierre."

The key ingredients missing are:

1) Consistency.
Yes good online coaches might make you accountable, and the fact you are buying a programme means you are probably motivated. But for many instagram coaches the relationship ends with the paypal transaction.

2) Intensity.
A lack lustre effort, no results, however good the programme.

3) Technique.
This is a big one. The programme might have some really good exercises on it like deadlifts, or squats or even something like a dumbbell row. But if you're technique is off the chance of injury is high, plus you will not be activating the muscles you should be.

See my three pillars of training that I wrote about a hundred years ago.

Even a press up or a plank in a basic bodyweight programme can be done horribly.

I could write 10 effective programmes right now** (while sipping a cappuccino in a coffee shop) ranging from fat loss to hypertrophy to marathon running. I know they work, I have tested them on people. It doesn't mean that everyone should do them.

The same goes for nutrition plans.

For example, I have purchased programmes online that have power cleans  at 85% 1RM in them. Is it a good exercise, yes. Would I expect someone to be able to do a power clean just because it was in a programme and they had watched a 30 second video of it? No.

The online market is not for beginners.

As I stated last week, we can become insular as an industry.

Instagram and social media posts of half naked, ripped fitness models does not  appeal to most of the public who just want to get fit and lost a bit of fat.

We have to keep upping the ante, posting more and more exercises, thousands of variations, something no one has even seen before, feats of strength and endurance to garner more likes  and clicks from our fitness friends.

Posting the basics is no longer enough. Everyone knows how to do these right? Wrong.

No one is going to post up a video of someone going for a steady state walk or doing a wall press up.

Many online coach doesn't really want to bother with beginners. They want to train people like them. People who already know how to deadlift or squat, who want to get ripped for stage. Fellow bodybuilders and powerlifters.

It becomes a cult of fitness. Training beginners is hard, you can't do all the sexy exercises. The public switch off.

The genie is out of the bottle.

As I've stated before the digital disruption of the fitness industry is here.

I'm no King Cunute here holding back the sea.

There are some very good coaches online, but there is also a sea of bad ones. And I've seen first hand how some members of the public have bought into these programmes and promises.

The traditional part of the industry was too slow to adopt the online platforms and methods and got out maneuvered by some social media savvy millennials.

Sure the free market reigns online.

But in a post-truth world the loudest and simplest voice is heard and believed.

All the good coaches, the ones with years of experience training people 'one on one' need to step up and take it back from the charlatans, hawkers and digital carpetbaggers. That means coaches like me (and you) need to get to work.


* How do I know that I'm not actually incompetent and a fitness dolt? The original Dunning-Kruger theory was inspired by the news story of a guy who tried to rob a bank with his face covered in lemon juice, thinking as this was used as invisible ink it would make his face invisible to the security cameras. As I have never tried this, I think I'm safe.

** Send a stamped addressed envelope to 'Lost in Fitness, No.1 Fitness Towers' and I will send you out a free programme of your choice.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

All the broken people. Where do they all come from?

The market the fitness industry missed.

Anxiety, depression, diabetes(type 2), hip replacement, knee pain, knee surgery, knee replacement, wrist pain, wrist surgery, elbow pain, elbow surgery, shoulder pain, shoulder surgery, COPD, high blood pressure, parkinsonisms, MS, cancer, back pain, back surgery, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, asthma and stroke.

Above are a list of conditions, off the top of my head, that I have come across in my time in the fitness industry. Most of them I encountered in a non exercise referral situation, i.e. they joined the gym or a class and walked in, not as part of a specialised scheme. (And full disclosure, I have some of the things listed above as well!).

There are no special populations.

The fitness industry and fitness qualifications still talk about special populations.

As I've said before, there are no special populations anymore. The special population is the person who walks into the gym or a class with no injuries or medical conditions. Unless you are training a group of 19 year olds, this is probably never going to happen.

Referral schemes never quite cut it.

There was a time, 10 years ago or so, when anyone with one of the above conditions would come through an exercise referral scheme, they would have a GP referral letter, and normally they would be older, had never exercised before and exercise had become the last resort of the medical profession.

Adherence with this group was normally low, and finance was a typical barrier. I'm not saying there weren't some success stories, and some peoples lives were changed. But it has never quite achieved what it could have.

GP referral 10 years ago: Look you can sit down and watch TV, just like at home. If you have an injury or medical condition you do NOT have to use this.

Now, people with injuries and medical conditions are not coming through referral schemes. They are coming to standard classes and gyms. They are bypassing the medical profession.

On the one hand it is a positive thing, this population is more self motivated. Typically they may have been exercising for the whole lives. We are now seeing the baby boomer generation and younger, the ones who have always exercised. They have been coming to classes for 15 to 20 years and they aren't stopping now.

Teach a standard aerobics class, total body toning class with 20 people in, and you may be dealing with 20 different types of injury and medical condition.

Sometimes the participants wont tell you they have these conditions, or tell you half way through or expect you to have a plethora of modifications ready for them. I think some members of the public think you have been taught all these modifications. What is actually true: the instructor is using their experience and making their best guess at that time...

For example, I have covered LBT and toning classes where people have said to me lunges hurt my knees" or "squats hurt my knees". This would beg the question, what were you expecting to be doing in an LBT class? My standard response is, if it hurts don't do it, and maybe you should go and see a physio or get a one to one session with some health professional to sort out your knee problems before you come to a mainstream class?

Yes, we need to educate the public, but we also need to educate ourselves.

GP Referral, Level 3 PT, level 4 something.

In the UK most personal trainers have the standard level 3 qualification. And most specialised qualifications for exercise referral are level 4.

The standard level 3 personal training qualification doesn't prepare the student for all the health conditions they are going to encounter and nor in fact do the level 4 qualifications.

It's not the fault of of the well intentioned people paying the money to do these courses. As far as they are concerned this is the industry standard qualification they need.

When I did the GP referral qualification we spent a lot of time working out VO2 Max percentages, which I have never used ever again, and learning the stages of change model, which again is not that useful when faced with someone who has had a hip replacement. Then we went through all the medications for blood pressure and their side effects.  The amount of time spent on specific exercise was minimal.

The level 4 back pain specialist course I went on suggested playing bingo sitting on a swiss ball was a good thing for people with back pain (true story!). I learned more from reading McGills books. The course gave me precisely zero tools to use with an active person with low back pain.

Now, this was fine back in the day, when the referral clients you were seeing were sedentary individuals, and frail old people. In these cases, the axiom, of any gentle movement is going to be good holds true. And yes we should still help these people.

But what happens, when faced with the highly motivated individual who has had a hip replacement or knee surgery and has been discharged by the physio service who turns up for an orientation.

They have signed the waiver form saying they are good to go, and then they spring it on you.

Or you are about to do some hip moves in a pilates class, and one of the participants say "I've had a hip replacement, can I do this, what can I do instead?" They think you have been taught what to do in this situation...

Of course, rule 1 is do no harm. Rule 2 is educate yourself, because the fitness industry system of qualifications has let you down. Rule 3 is be honest.

Quick fixes.

People want quick fixes and quick answers. Instructors, how many time have you been sitting in the gym and someone comes up to you and says "what can I do for this shoulder pain I have or back pain or knee pain?". Have they seen a physio? Sometimes yes, mostly no. When you say maybe they should go and see one, they look disappointed that you didn't give them the magic shoulder exercise that will fix them after you have assessed their shoulder with your MRI/ X ray vision.

The honest answer of course is "it depends", I will have to do an hour assessment to figure out what is best for you, it costs this amount... can be met with disbelief. They are used to the quick answer, they are not used to someone saying maybe this class isn't for you right now. They are used to fitness professionals bluffing or feigning expertise.

But mostly they are used to the fitness industry ignoring their needs.

Insular. Lost markets, lost people, lost opportunity.

A vast number of the public feel excluded by fitness and gyms. "It's not for them."

And yet the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges calls exercise

"The miracle cure."
We have become an insular industry, "get ripped", "get shredded" messages, with increasingly hardcore messages about HIIT, and high level exercise that appeals to 1% of people (our fitness friends) and not the public.

At the other end of the spectrum, google "GP referral" or "exercise referral" and its the usual images of some white haired pensioners in their 90's waving their arms around in a studio, or a doctor with a stethoscope.

Or the classic gym marketing image of a trainer next to someone on a swiss ball that appeals to precisely no one.

The woman or man in his/her 40, 50's or even 60's doesn't associate themselves with 'old persons exercise'. The want help and advice, they don't want to be treated like "old people".

There is also a race to the bottom, to provide the cheapest gym with no support.

At the same time there is a race to the top to be the exclusive PT, strength & conditioning, high cost facility. (Where in fact the trainer still only has the level 3 PT qualification everyone has, and if you turn up with an injury or medical condition or an athletic goal you are going to get exactly the same workout).

And the people with a few injuries, niggles, maybe a medical condition or two but who want support and don't feel old or broken are left out.

No one is broken.

Of course, if everyone is broken, no one is broken. People are just people. Life happens.

As a society we are at crisis point with preventable disease.

Fitness should be at the forefront of helping people and educating people.

But we are are not.

The NHS lets people down with its pharmaceutical centred strategy. The media let people down with its confusing messages.

But we are also to blame. Yes, I am talking to you REPs and Active IQ with your lack of quality courses addressing what the public and instructors need. Hold your head in shame that you think mickey mouse, poor quality, distance learning level 3 is acceptable.

Yes, I'm talking to you Universities, with your sports science degrees and sports coaching degrees, churning out graduates that have no practical knowledge of how to help unfit people.

Personal trainers don't need to be physiotherapists. But we should be the go to place for people wanting to get all the benefits of exercise.

It doesn't have to complicated. It has to be sincere, quality, evidence based, compassionate and results driven. If you're not budget or coaching professional sports people, it's all you've got.

We should be better, we should be the fitness experts. The market is waiting.

"First move well, then move often." - Gray Cook

Tuesday, November 29, 2016


Is the fitness industry judgemental?

I was doing a gym orientation the other day, going through a programme. I noticed half way through that the woman was a bit off, and I don't know how we got onto the subject, but she said "I bet you're judging people all the time working in a gym."

Firstly, I was taken aback that she would think that. My response was 87 to 88% of the population don't go to a gym or a health club or leisure centre, I have respect for anyone who walks through the door and decides they want to go to the gym or a class for whatever reason. And I genuinely hope they start to enjoy exercising and get all the benefits from it that I know exist.

So no I'm not judging anyone who makes the decision to try something new and get out of their comfort zone. She perked up at that point.

But it got me thinking as an industry do we come across as judgemental and elitist, am I giving off that vibe subconsciously?

All the coaches I personally know are willing to help people. If someone is new to exercise, is open to new ideas of what will work and actually shows up for appointments, most coaches I know will go above and beyond to help this person and want them to get results and enjoy the process.

I am not immune to it either.

Actually on the same day the above event happened, I signed a lady up to the gym and was showing her around. I asked if she wanted to get booked in for a class as she had expressed an interest in certain classes. Her response was along the lines of "one step at a time, it was hard enough for me to join today, its easy for people like you, you don't understand what its like."

When I thought about it, we all fear judgement and looking like we don't know what we are doing.

My response to the above lady: I too recently joined a new gym, and you know it's the same for me walking into a new place. Will the pin code work? How do I get through the door, where are the changing rooms, where is the equipment I need, are people looking at me because I'm new? Are they judging the free t-shirt that I'm wearing.

Yes, I probably didn't have the same level of fear and apprehension as this lady, but it was there.

Another example is going to a Yoga class. I have the flexibility of a breeze block and have gone into a few yoga classes. And the feeling for me is probably the same as a woman walking into the freeweights area. Yoga classes are 99% women and the occasional Yogi  guy doing a back bend. I walk in and my monkey mind starts racing with a thought train along the lines of "everyone can do this, they are judging my lack of co-ordinated yoga clothing and my cheap mat from Sports Direct, they are wondering why a lone guy has wandered into their class, no I'm not a weirdo, I just want to improve my flexibility and work on mindfulness."

Of course, in reality they are all welcoming, not everyone is an expert and the teachers are always friendly and helpful.

But if  I'm thinking that, (and I have been in gyms 20 years plus and have no problem walking into a Bro-central area and start doing some dynamic effort front squats), what does the average non gym going sedentary person feel like when they decide to get fit and lose weight.

Sorry to every woman I ever asked if they were entering a fitness competition.

Along with judgement are the pre-conceived notions and assumptions.

If I ask a woman what she is training and she says something like "arms". My next reflex question is "are you going on stage or competing?".

Yes its wrong, and I'm sorry woman-kind. If I ask a guy what he is training today and he says "arms", I don't assume he is going on stage or is going to be a bodybuilder. I assume that's what most guys do in the freeweights area, its their hobby.

But of course, women can lift weights and have an arm day, because they enjoy it, and they like lifting weights, and they like getting stronger and they are not trying to lose weight.

If a woman was doing 12 spin classes a week I wouldn't assume she was training for the Tour De France, I would assume she just liked spin classes.

And if a guy wants to go to an LBT class that's fine too, as they can be freakin' hard.

Fitness people, are we all judging each other?

There can be a subtext of "my workout is better than yours".

Powerlifters judging guys 'just' train for aesthetics, or crossfitters judging powerlifters, or if I am training for a sport or athletic endeavour then my training must be more valid than yours. None of this is true, we are all just training, we are in the gym mainly because we enjoy it.

Recently I had to  stop training for a while, I would walk in and all the Bros with their gym caddies* would piss me off. Now its not their fault, it was my problem. They were just doing what gym Bros do - wear vests and do chest & arm day.

Eventually I got over it and started training again.

We are all in it together. From the powerlifter to the old lady on an exercise referral scheme.

Judging other trainers.

These days if I see personal trainers in the gym I don't judge what they are doing. I don't judge other peoples programmes, I'm not in possession of all the facts.

I am curious why they may be doing certain exercises. Why they have chosen them for their client.

We all have our own biases, our favourite exercises and routines.

But I am cognizant of the fact that if some trainer saw me training some of my clients or if I posted up their squat technique in the perfectionist world of social media they would flame me and say how terrible the technique is.

But they don't know how far that person has come, what their mobility and strength was like before, their injury or medical history. The specific adaptations I had to make for them.

Hence I'm willing to cut other trainers the same slack as well.

Only dogmatics and dictators think they have all the answers.

Exceptions to the rule.

Of course, I wouldn't be me if there weren't some exception, it can't all be a 'love in.'

I will judge you if:

You don't put your weights away. You do partial rep speed alternate bicep curls standing right in front of the dumbbell rack. Someone asks if you have finished with a piece of equipment and you say yes and walk off with all the weight still on the bar. You bully or intimidate other people in the weights area, especially beginner or smaller guys.

I will also be somewhat judgemental if you keep cancelling appointments at short notice and wasting my time.

I have even had guys tell me that there are too many women in the power racks, and they are "not lifting enough weight to justify using them" and should make way for them as they are doing "proper training.". Yes, misogynist Donald Trump types in a training vest.

The Power Rack does not judge or discriminate.

In short, be polite and courteous, don't be a douche bag and realise the training environment is for everyone. It is still a select band, and we should support each other.

Don't be so hard on yourself.

Ultimately, we are constantly judging ourselves and end up thinking others are doing the same. The self critic in the head can be overwhelming and you start to think that's what everyone else is thinking about you as well. Except, they are all locked in their own battle with the inner critic and don't have time to think about you as well.

Don't be so hard on yourself. If you are training, making an effort, you are doing the best you can do today.

We are all fighting the good fight and confronting our inner demons on a daily basis.

(Top tip: Loving Kindness, Metta meditation can help. First it makes you not be so hard on yourself. 

Then it makes you thing about strangers you meet on a daily basis but don't really know, like the guy serving in the coffee shop. Think about all that is going on in their life, all the things you don't know about them and then wish them well and happiness. 

And then think about difficult people and people from your past as well; wish them well. Of course, this in no way changes how they think or feel or react, they have no idea you are doing it. But it changes your mindset, makes you be more kind to yourself and ultimately others).

You can never tell who is going to make it. Don't judge a book by its cover (there I said it).

In ultra runs elite sub 2.30 marathon runners drop out at aid stations, meanwhile you can be passed by a 4ft11 mother of two going up some mountain pass. And there is always some old guy in a pair of shorts he bought in 1986 who finishes.


Our job as an industry is to make the environment and atmosphere as welcoming and as comfortable as possible. And then letting people know that the training they will have to do to reach their goals is going to be uncomfortable.

Hats off to anyone who made it through the door of a gym or laced up a pair of trainers and hit the road.


"Cut yourself some slack. Remember, one hundred years from now, all new people." 

-Message tacked to a tree by monks at Wat Umong, a 700-year old temple in Thailand (Quoted in the book Pivot by Jenny Blake)
*Gym Caddie - a term invented by me. When gym bros train, they normally train in pairs, the alpha gym bro who is normally bigger and more experienced and his smaller gym caddie. The gym caddie is responsible for making the alpha bro look good and tidy up after the alpha bro. If the gym caddie neglects his duties, the gym can be full of loaded bars and dumbbells on the floor. This is a disaster for everyone.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Olympic Legacy. Same as it ever was?

The 2016 Rio Olympics finished one week ago.

In case you missed it Team GB are now a world sporting superpower. Beating China in the medal table, a country that has 20 times the population and a state sponsored sporting programme. We also won medals in 19 sports, a more diverse range of sports than the USA or China.
I was surprised by the level of TV media and print media coverage. August may be a slow news month but the headlines and top stories were always Olympic stories. Why the media chose to prioritise the Olympics over war and economic crisis is a whole other article; but they deemed it important enough to be the headline news, and that impacts the national consciousness.
But now as the summer fades into Autumn, and the next mention of Olympic stars will probably be on Strictly Come Dancing or a voice over on BBC sports personality of the year with elegiac music playing in the background; What will be the legacy?
Will sport participation increase? Will TV coverage revert to its old favourite of football, despite the fact we are truly terrible at football and Sport England figures show more people participate in swimming, athletics and cycling than football.

I saw the chairman of UK Sport, Rod Carr, on TV, he said

"We want to see a healthier nation that takes part in exercise. We've played our part in that. We need a collective effort."
The subtext here is that they delivered what was promised, now someone else needs to do something. 

Sport participation down since the last Olympics.
Sport England's figures show a decrease in sport participation since 2012, down from 1.7 million in Oct 2012 to 1.56million in April 2016. And even more surprising there is a decrease in disabled sport participation since the Paralympics in London.
15.8 millions people play sport or exercise once a week. The biggest growth has been in ‘keep fit and gym’, so not actually a sport. Unless you count Crossfit as a sport and there are no figures for Weightlifting.
Yes, the lottery funding has worked for elite sports and Olympic cycles. But has it filtered down into the general population, are kids more active? And are there more opportunities to participate in sport and activity than before.
Since the last Olympics, the Olympic athletics stadium is now a football ground, the track where Jess Ennis trained in Sheffield has closed down. And I know from personal experience that trying to get funding for a local running track to have a better surface put on it is near on impossible.
Has there been a sudden rise in the number of 50 metre swimming pools or velodromes? The answer is no.
There is a sport we are world leaders in, cycling. Apparently 2.5 million people take part in this per week ( and this doesn't include commuting ) and we dominate track and road cycling. Something that was unthinkable 20 years ago. And yet, has there been a massive increase in the building of cycle lanes, cycle paths, mountain bike courses, BMX courses? The answer is no, no, no and no. Last time I looked Denmark and the Netherlands put us to shame.
We are willing to spend billions on infrastructure projects like high speed railways, road widening, congestion charges and even nuclear power stations. But something that is a green form of transport and good for your health. Nah, take your chances in the bus lane.
Rightly or wrongly, physical exercise is a big part of the governments strategy for tackling obesity. (Many people argue there is a lack of emphasis on nutrition, and as all the research shows for weightloss nutrition is more important than exercise).
As we know exercise is one of the greatest things you can do for all aspects of health. But does the Olympics have a trickle down effect?
We know there is no trickle down effect from football. A game that is worth billions of pounds has not impacted the grass roots game. Outside of the Premier League, clubs struggle. There is no co-ordinated national programme. The Premier League is a business showcase for international players and managers, but participation in football is down and trumped by cycling.
More adults take part in cycling or swimming than football or golf. Source: Sport England.

A working class hero is something to be.
Sport participation in the poorest social groups is down according to Sport England data.
In the London Olympics a disproportionate amount of medals were won by people who had attended private (public) school. The figures for Rio 2016 are looking somewhat better, but still over one third of our medalists went to private school, when only 7% of under 16's go to an 'independent' school.
Let's face it, to take up rowing or show jumping you need access to those facilities and there aren’t many fencing clubs on housing estates.
Private schools tend to have running tracks, swimming pools, rugby tours and more. Other schools had to sell their playing fields.
Even the Sport England figures for athletics are a bit misleading, as they count road running and jogging as athletics, not only track and field. I would be interested to see the figures for athletics if you took out jogging and park runs. If a young girl wants to emulate Jess Ennis or Katarina Johnson Thompson and practice these events, access may be somewhat harder depending on your location in the country.
Some sports have always had traditional working class roots like Boxing, and even middle distance running. But unlike Kenya or Ethiopia we don’t have 10 people waiting to take Mo Farah's place, as a nation our marathon times are slower than in the 1980s.
Running is essentially free, but there is something else at play, something deeper.
Badminton is available at nearly every leisure centre, but it still tends to be an ‘old persons’ activity.

The Olympics are great, you get to see all these sports that never normally get shown. For example, the BMX was exciting, I personally like weightlifting and had to find it on the red button.
BMX: Way more interesting to watch than cricket. Source:

They still showed an inordinate amount of tennis and golf, which we get to see all year round anyway, we won gold so you can’t complain.
But once the Olympics is over, you will need to tune into Channel 4 at 7am on a Sunday to see anything different.
Even the Tour De France, which we actually win, is on ITV4 despite the fact more people take part in cycling than football. What's more, cycling is seen as the 'new golf' for more middle aged men, the section of the population most likely to watch sport on traditional TV.
But there is a perceived wisdom in the media. The nightly news will show football and cricket results and assume you know what they are talking about. No need to explain the rules (and I still don’t understand cricket even though we had to do it at school.). But show some cycling and they are explaining yellow jerseys and stage wins like we are dumbasses at home.
Mainstream TV really needs to start showing these sports, they could buy the rights for pennies. We literally have hours of coverage of snooker and darts, and I have nothing against this but with digital channels, iplayer etc there is so much more scope.
Kids do what they see.
Some sports don’t translate well to TV, for example, squash. But I can’t see badminton being any less compelling than tennis, and if people watch golf and cricket for hours then surely anything is fair game.

Coaches, Paralympics, Weightlifting.
American Universities have state of the art facilities, tracks, stadiums, pools and coaches. There is a high school system and a college system that feeds basketball and football (NFL). The idea of the coach is embedded in their system.
Fees at many UK universities are now comparable with US Universities, but good luck seeing that reflected in facilities.

Now I'm not saying the American University system is perfect and we should be handing out scholarships to people just because they can play basketball. But there are lessons to be learned in terms of coaching and facilities.
The US system is used to having coaches at school and college level. In our system there is a coaching void until you reach the high level. Also note the level of foreign coaches at the highest level – rowing – German coach, rugby – Australian, cycling – several nationalities.
We still have an amateur approach to coaching at most levels. After the last Olympics I expected there to be an explosion in coaching opportunities, especially with athletics and weightlifting. There wasn’t.
Weightlifting lost its funding because it hadn’t attracted enough people to the sport. Despite an explosion in Olympic weightlifting in gyms and crossfit facilities, there was no push to get younger people into the sport, despite ready-made facilities and coaches good to go. In Rio 2016 Colombia had more athletes competing in weightlifting than us.
A few years ago a disabled gentlemen was interested in taking up some athletics, I contacted several organisations about how he could start and how to find a coach. All the organisations were very supportive and there to 'facilitate' disabled sport but no one knew how I could find the guy a coach or how someone would become a coach. After seeing this page from Paralympics I hope the situation has changed,
But disabled sport participation is down since 2012. 
After The GB Women Gold in the Rio Hockey final, the importance of their Strength and Conditioning coach was cited, and how the coach was moving on to another sport. Surely we should be cultivating coaches at all levels of sport?

Women in sport.
Everyone in leisure knows if you want some funding for a scheme, say you are trying to get teenage girls involved in exercise, and a cheque will be winging its way to you before you can say ‘zumba’.
The lack of participation of young girls in exercise is a worrying trend.
And yet we have young black female sprinters winning medals in the 4x100m, and golds in female cycling and hockey players. How can we convert this into more female participation in exercise?
Rio 2016 GB Female 4x100m team. Ask them how to get more girls involved in sport.
I know not everyone wants to be an elite sports person, and some girls may be put off by the idea of competing, but surely there is someway we can use the likes of Dina Asher-Smith and Daryll Neita and their coaches to galvanise girls to take part in sport. I note that Dina Asher-Smith is from my hometown and is also currently at Kings College University, surely she is a role model not some chump on reality TV?
Would more female sports on TV help? Our female hockey players and female football players are more successful than their male counterparts. Do we need to encourage more female coaches?
I see the GB Hockey team doing the rounds on TV, they are passionate about their sport and want more people to participate. It's a game involving a ball we actually won, the media need to take note.

Legacy reboot.
After London 2012 the legacy trail went cold. As someone in the leisure industry there was no big investment, or campaign or grassroots uptake of sports. There was no investment in facilities or coaching.
Yes, things like Back to Netball, No Strings Badminton and Go-Tri have been launched to try and encourage more people into these sports but have these worked?
The problem was no one was clear on what the legacy was meant to be. Was it to create another successful Olympic games, in which case success; cased closed. Or was it to increase sport participation, or increase levels of activity and exercise, or was it to make a healthier nation with less burden on the NHS? No one was sure.
We do know that exercise is as close to a magic bullet as there is for brain health and disease prevention. Survival rates from stroke and heart disease are way higher than in the 1970's mainly due to early medical intervention and drugs. When as everyone knows, prevention is cheaper and more effective.
We need to be clear on the goal. Who are we trying to attract?
The media will play its part, facilities will play its part and an increase in coaches will play its part too.
Otherwise in  four years time we will be having the same conversation. Four years of non mainstream sports being ignored, four more years of people asking what can be done about the burden on the NHS and peoples health.

Am I setting the bar too high? It's hard enough to get the most of the population to go for a walk and yet we are now an elite sporting nation. Is there a disconnect between the general population and the sporting elite?
What are your thoughts? What is the legacy? How do we get more people active? Does it even matter to you?


Sunday, June 26, 2016

This month I have mostly been watching and reading this... from vegetables to netflix.

If you live in the UK right now, you probably want to put your foot through the gogglebox as the media goes into hyperdrive panic and you realise its all "talk talk talk talk until you lose your patience"*.

So rather than worrying if your passport will still work in 2 years, why not edify and enlighten yourself with my top picks of health and fitness news stories, and non fitness books and youtube videos over the last few weeks. Plus my top Netflix pick.

First up

Vegetables on the rise.

The BBC and several other media outlets report a rise in vegetable consumption in the UK of 4% in the last 5 years.

See the BBC video at this link:

At last a positive news story, the British public aren't all eating deep fried mars bars, with a Glasgow salad, and diabetes in a can. All the more surprising since vegetables have no advertising budget or celebrity sponsorship, people aren't all mindless consumers.

Yes, a few people spiralising courgettes on the internet has probably helped.

This has lead one supermarket to trial 'vegetable butchers'. Someone who will show you how to chop a carrot. Fair enough, someone might need help with that.

A vegetable ready to be butchered or wrangled or chopped.

What I can't grasp is why would you call them 'vegetable butchers'. Vegetables are the last thing you would associate with butchery. This makes as much sense as calling them 'vegetable bakers' or 'vegetable fishmongers'.

Why not call them 'vegetable chefs' or even cooler 'vegetable wranglers'?

New fitness trends: rucking with a rucksack.

Those kids you see lost in your local forest with massive rucksacks on, they may not be the annual Duke Of Edinburgh intake, they may actually be 'rucking'.

In case you can't guess, this involves going for a walk with a rucksack. I'm guessing the term comes  from the American military, as they call backpacks rucksacks, whereas in the UK the military call rucksacks Bergen's.

I can't find the original post I read about this, but a quick google search and it turns out this is more popular than I knew.

Of course, going for a walk is always a good thing. And as Stuart McGill,  professor of spine biomechanics, has shown, walking with a backpack can even be good for people with lower back pain. He even gets a mention in this Mens Health article on rucking:

What always makes me laugh is  when something that is completely non specialist and simple gets packaged into a new product. With advice on things like how to pack your rucksack, just in case you've never been on holiday and don't know how to pack a bag. Add in the military element, and bingo, you've got a hardcore fitness product.

I spent a large proportion of my youth wandering around the Brecon Beacons, Dartmoor and Scotland with a 'backpack' on, little did I know I was actually rucking.

In fact, every commuter and tourist in London is inadvertently 'rucking'. Whats more, most tourists have their rucksack on the wrong way, with it in front for security reasons. Hence, they are making rucking even harder. I call it 'Urban Rucking' (patent pending, copyright) unless someone else got there first.

My book recommendation of the month is: Deep Work by Cal Newport

I saw this in a bookshop and bought it on spec without reading any reviews. I really enjoyed it, Newport has an engaging, easy to digest writing style, I read it in a couple of days.

The basic premise is that to do deep, important work, you need to shut off distractions and focus.

This is increasingly difficult in the connected, social media, internet world. Don't confuse 'busyness' with productivity. As anyone who works in a modern office knows, people are busy all the time sending emails, but they generally aren't being very productive or doing anything of much importance.

The great artists, writers, scientists and thinkers find time to do deep work and avoid distraction by becoming hard to find at certain times.

And Newport should know, he is a MIT post doc professor in computer science who has written several books and publishes several papers every year. All while never working past 5.30pm at night.

You need a plan, a daily/ weekly ritual, you need to monitor your deep work hours and as Newport says

"Focus on a small number of wildly important goals."

One thing he recommends doing is quitting social media for 30 days. I am currently on day 26 of doing this (which is probably why I am writing this, rather than posting video clips on facebook). And so far, I would say it has made me more productive. I will write more about this in part 2 of my post on how to form habits).

In this article Cal Newport summarises how he manages his time.

Reading this book led me to find Brian Johnsons youtube channel, he actually does a really good job of summarising the ideas in Cal Newports book (see video below).

He has some really good summary videos of various books and ideas, in what he calls 'philosophers notes'. I have been watching quite a few of these (probably due to quitting social media!).

My favourite youtube channel is: The School of Life

Yes, you could watch some Vloggers trying to sell you their latest product placement, or showing you how to cook microwave rice. OR you could fire up the digital zoetrope that is youtube and watch this channel instead.

Don't have time to read 1000 pages of War and Peace. No problem, the school of life summarise Leo Tolstoys life and philosophy for you, and how it is applicable today.

They also cover Proust, Emerson, Dostoyevsky, Dickens.

(Talk about deep work, these guys in the past all managed to write paradigm shifting epic books, sometimes in between being imprisoned and sent to labour camps, and I struggle to write 1000 word blog once every month).

Some of the other videos I like are Who Am I, Wabi Sabi, What Nice Men Don't Say to Nice Women.

This channel is a mix of philosophy, life advice, education and commentary on modern day life.

Netflix top pick: Love

I watched this the first time it came out, and liked it so much I just watched it again over the last couple of weeks. Currently only one season is available.

See the trailer below. It is actually better than the trailer would suggest. Its funny, touching, shows how relationships really are, how they pan out, and how people interact with each other. It also has a cool soundtrack.

Careful when you go on Netflix, don't click on the erotic film of the same name by mistake like I did!

Here are three of the tunes from the sound track.
Elvis Costello
And a Pete Townsend song I've never heard before.

Well that's a wrap. Have a good week. I'm off to change my pounds into euros ready for a holiday (if only I had done it last week) and prepare to end up paying the equivalent of £8 for a cafe au lait in France.

*Springsteen reference for the day.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

What I learned from 30 days of yoga (and 100 days of meditation). How to form habits. Part 1.

"I was burned out from exhaustion, buried in the hail, poisoned in the bushes and blown out on the trail." - Bob Dylan, Shelter From The Storm.

After a long time ultra-running my body was gradually breaking down. I'd made perfunctory efforts at mobility and tried to stay strong as well. My right ankle mobility was gone, my calves were always tight, my right hip and right knee were like rusty hinges, and my T-spine had always been like a breeze block, and it later turned out to be Sheurmanns disease. I was chronically stiff, and my posture was edging towards Mr Burns on a bad day. It was time to do something.

Mr Burn: former ultra-runner

I had to dedicate specific time to mobility, flexibility and breathing. Tacking it on to my normal gym workout wasn't going to cut it.

I decided to do some home Yoga. I knew I wasn't going to commit to going to a class, due to my schedule changing, trying to find a class near me that suited my time (and budget) and my general male ego of going to a class of mainly female Yogis. Also I knew doing this once or twice a week wasn't going to be enough.

Don't get me wrong, I knew the benefits of having a teacher who could correct you 'hands on' in the moment. I had a one to one with a Yoga teacher I work with, which highlighted  even more the stiffness in my joints and what I needed to work on. But having one to one sessions every week wasn't an option. And I knew without some kind of guidance I wasn't going to break into spontaneous self guided Yoga sessions at home.

I tried some Yoga apps, they were okay. Then I found some Yoga channels on youtube, these were more like it, Yoga with SarahBeth and Yoga with Adriene. I liked the fact the videos were at varying lengths, some only 15 minutes, some longer 30-40 minutes. Which I could fit into my schedule. I also liked the tone of the videos, passionate about Yoga, good teaching without being overly serious.

I started doing a few a week, mainly in the evenings before bed, I liked the Yin Yoga ones, good for relaxing, and focusing on the areas I needed to work on. Plus for me, I didn't need to really focus on the strength moves, I didn't need Yoga for weightloss or anything like that.

Then someone mentioned ROMWOD. A crossfit website, with 20 minute routines. I signed up. This involved holding the poses for a long time, holding poses like lizard and pigeon for 2, 3, 4, 5 minutes at a time. This is hard. Each session may only contain 3 or 4 poses or positions at most.

This felt like what I needed, these longer holds to really open out. After a while though I began to dread another session of holding Lizard for 5 minutes. It became too repetitive for me. Sometimes it felt like I was getting better, but other times it felt like my hips were feeling chronically worse. I decided to cancel my subscription. I still think it is a good option for a lot of people.

One of the yoga youtube channels had a 30 day yoga camp, so I decided to do that.  I knew from previous experience, that one way to ingrain a habit was to commit to doing it every day. I had done it last year with meditation.

This would help me form the habit. I would start on the first of the month and do every session for 30 days.  First of all I couldn't believe that this was actually free, a new session every day, varying in length from 15 to 50 minutes. Second, I knew doing it everyday was the best way for me to form a habit.

100 days of meditation.

I'd always been interested in meditation, and like many people, had tried a few times, sporadically to do it, but given up.

I had started reading increasingly about mindfulness, neuroscience and decided it was time to really try meditation again. (please note: this isn't going to be a discussion about the benefits of meditation or mindfulness, but how I formed the habit).

I already had a comprehensive guide in meditation, a whole set of DVDs I had bought from Zenways years before. I had watched all the DVDs. dabbled in the meditation and then given up. I even had a meditation cushion. And when I realised I couldn't crowbar my ultra-running hips into a lotus position I bought a meditation bench as well.

In the little booklet that came with the Zenways DVDs, Wake Up and Live, it mentioned the practice in Zen tradition of meditating 100 days in a row. So I decided to try 100 days in a row, if you miss a day, you start again.

I didn't realise at the time this is a productivity idea called breaking the chain, attributed to the comedian Seinfeld (Of course, there is a good chance the Zen monks probably came up with the idea before Seinfelds sitcom aired and Jerry came up with the funky slap bass opening theme tune). When asked about writing jokes, he said write every day, and mark off on the calender everyday with a big X, it will get to a point where you don't want to break the chain, so you keep going. This article here explains it.

Class calendar picture

And so it was with the 100 days of meditation. I didn't actually mark anything off on a calendar, and I didn't write it down as a goal, I just resolved to do it.

I started with the 8 week mindfulness audios that come with the book 'Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world'. It was easy to commit, some of these were only 10 minutes a day.  I already had some John Kabat Zinn guided CDs as well, which I had done a few times.

I then moved onto the Zenways 8 week course, starting at the beginning,

As I had resolved to do this every day no matter what, the times I did the sessions were variable. I don't work 9-5 Monday to Friday. Sometimes I would do the session in the morning, other times I was doing them at 11.30pm at night, making sure I was getting them in before midnight.

I committed 100% to doing the session by the end of the day no matter what, however tired I was, whatever was happening that day.

I also downloaded the insight meditation time app, I can't remember when. This has a timer on it, and other guided sessions. Even now I use this to get a 10 minute meditation on the bus or at home.

All these various guided sessions were very useful in forming the habit. Especially with meditation it is very hard to sit down yourself and essentially do nothing. The guided sessions give you a sense of 'I have to do this', the guiding voices help. Also, I can get annoying pulsating tinnitus, Bodhidharma may have stared at a wall listening to ants scream for 9 years, but he probably didn't have to put up with tinnitus. At one point, I was on holiday during the 100 days, and I had to do the sessions in my hotel room unguided, sitting on pillows every morning after breakfast, but at this point I wasn't going to stop.

It was the same with Yoga. I could have tried doing Yoga by myself everyday with no videos, after all I know a lot of moblity and flexibility exercises. I just knew, that wasn't going to happen for me. Much like going to a class, I need to switch off and be guided by the teacher at first.

At some point I  passed 100 days of meditation, and I kept going. The habit was formed. Later in the year I went to a meditation retreat for a few days, and that was a good experience. It was good to hear that you can't really do meditation 'wrong', if you're doing it, you're doing it.

"Think of your meditation practice as mental training." - Julian Daizan Skinner.
Once the habit was formed, missing a few days here and there didn't matter. No need to beat yourself up, you always know you are going to come back to it, the ground work has been done. I knew I was going to do this forever.

I could apply the same to Yoga.

30 days of Yoga: First let go of judgements.

One thing I had probably learned from meditation, or it would be more proper to say 'gradually absorbed' rather than learned was to be a bit less judgemental and open.

When it comes to exercise, I have quite a strong evidenced based idea of what I think is 'good' and 'bad' exercise. With the Yoga for 30 days, I decided to do all the exercises and moves that came up regardless of what I may have previously thought about them or judging them.

Same with the idea of Chakras and that type of thing, it get mentioned a fair bit in Yoga, and I decided to be okay with that.

I did the 30 day Yoga Camp with Adriene on Youtube. And much like the meditation, I did it whenever I could, it might be 7am it might be 11pm, it helped that the sessions varied in length.

Unlike the meditation, I did write down everyday in a journal/diary what I had done. I also put asterisks next to sessions I really enjoyed so I could go back to them again. I also started to write down meditation sessions in the diary.

After a while I didn't want to break the chain, and more importantly, I was enjoying it, I looked forward to doing it, especially at the end of the day after being at work. I could see how people called it moving meditation.

At some point I decided it was time to buy a Yoga mat. (This involved a trip to the land of sub minimum wage worker exploitation Sport Direct, explaining to the girl I didn't want the pink mat, I needed the black manly mat, which involved her having to go up a ladder to a high shelf. I'm sure official ladder training protocol had been broken).

I did also go to a Yoga workshop and Yoga Nidra session. The Yoga workshop was hot Yoga, for me there was no benefit to it being hot. And some Yoga sap who was sweating profusely said he wanted it hotter, at which point I could only think of Hank Hill, King of the Hill, 'If it gets one degree hotter I'm going to kick your ass.' But hey, each to their own.

Hank Hill after going to Hot Yoga

I liked the Yoga Nidra, it was basically a progressive relaxation technique.

After 30 days.

The 30 days finished, and I carried on. I'm no Yogi, I'm never going to have the perfect technique or posture. This is not a story of transformation, I can't suddenly do the splits, and all my injuries didn't suddenly disappear. But it did help, I feel more mobile, without sounding like a cliche it does make you feel better mentally and physically.

This isn't meant to sound all 'look how great I am I did Yoga for 30 days and I meditate too'.  I'm essentially a neophyte when it comes to these things, I'm no expert. I just happen to like them and think they are beneficial.

I'm not saying you have to go and start meditating or take up Yoga, that is up to you. What I am saying is you can apply this simple technique to forming any habit.

And for me this technique works, do something for 30 days or longer, resolve to do it everyday, no exceptions and the habit is well on its way to being formed.

In part 2, I will briefly show have I also applied it to nutrition and social media. And the reason why these are harder habits to form, and why I still think SMART goals are dumb.


This is a list of resources I used. I am not affiliated to any of them. And I'm sure there are equally good youtube channels and meditation apps and books I am not aware of.

Yoga with Adriene, the youtube channel for the 30 day Yoga Camp. Why don't I live in Texas?
Sarah Beth Yoga, another youtube channel I like, especially the 20 minute deep stretch videos.

Zenways, comprehensive Rinzai meditation course. Plus I also have their summer Yoga download and Spontaneous Zen download.

Mindfulness book and 8 week audio course. From the guys at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, no religious  or 'new age' overtones if you don't like that kind of thing. Practical and clear.

Romwod : Crossfit mobility videos. Good if you need to hold stretches and positions for a long time to see results. There is a 7 day free trial.

Insight meditation app for your phone or tablet. Loads of guided meditations or just use the timer.