Doing better instead of doing more

Atul Gawande, the famous physician author, writes in his book Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance about the consistent miniscule actions that make elite doctors successful. He talks about the mindset of absolute commitment to excellence. Very few physicians uphold the highest standards in their work, and the few who do live by that level of commitment.

This came to mind as I thought about doing swings and getups every day. It can get a bit mind numbing after months of doing the same exercise, over and over. The principles of technique, form, and strength before volume start to slip here and there. I start to get accustomed to doing all the reps, all the sets. Every so othen the most important aspect of strength training escapes me: to do each swing with maximal force and each getup with maximal attention to form, and to stop when that can no longer be fulfilled.

It’s a matter of integrity, too, I know. You have to be honest with yourself and admit when you don’t have the strength to finish a set. But I think before any of that, it’s this absolute commitment to excellence. Just like with diets, I think that strength programs are easy to start, hard to keep going. To keep going the right way, that is.

Pavel Tsatsouline insists in Kettlebell Simple & Sinister that each swing must be done with full force. At first this seems like a no brainer. Sure, I’ll do my best every time, why not? Then as the weeks and months pass by, I find myself trying to finish sets with some not-so-hot swings toward the end. What gives?

Pavel talks about this natural preference within us to sacrifice strength for volume. When we get tired, it’s our instinct to try to get it all done, even if it means suboptimal output to reach that end. I’d rather hit the ten reps with a few weaker swings at the end, then stop at six when I feel my strength going down. It’s a strong urge to accomplish or finish a task, that’s socialized or built into me.

The thing to train for is maximal strength. It doesn’t matter exactly how many repetitions and sets get done. Yes, there are basic numbers to follow, and this helps us understand the general volume that is needed to increase strength. But the real cores of training strength are learning to do the movements and then doing the movements with maximal force.

Most school systems teach us to finish all the problems, write a prescribed number of pages, read a set number of books, achieve a certain GPA. This is ingrained in most of us from around age five to around age 21. How do you get away from that in a world that actually rewards the quality of the output?

Maybe I’m getting too deep here, talking about the education system and sociology. But that’s my mode of thinking, that’s where I come from in terms of schooling. So to me it’s about thinking but also doing outside the box.

Physical training is one of the most basic places to start with conditioning yourself in any aspect of life. It’s physical, so it’s right there. To do it, you are involved not just with your body but with your mind. You structure your learning, you commit to repetitions in order to improve, and it’s all inclusive. I even think the soul gets something out of it.

So in summary, I’m trying to say that we can think about physical training as the practice of giving the best in order to make that best even better. Rather than sticking to our grade school habit of making the teacher happy and hitting all the numbers, we can play to nature’s true system of improvement through excellence.

We can take care to only give maximal effort, and to withhold from doing anything that is not so. This is hard. Very hard.

Live powerfully,

Steve


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Russian Style General Strength Training

If you are looking for serious long term strength training that you can do every day, with minimal equipment, in less than thirty minutes, take a look at Kettlebell Simple & Sinister.

Simple & Sinister is a strength endurance program of 100 kettlebell swings and 10 getups every day. It is meant to condition a person to always be ready for life, and to “store energy in the body rather than exhaust it” (Kettlebell Simple & Sinister). By training day after day, you adapt to a higher level of strength and endurance. You start with a small weight, develop solid form, and progress to the next weight. Rest days are fewer because the weight is relatively small.

Unlike powerlifting, kettlebell training does not aim for the highest possible weight lifted. Rather, it focuses on total body acceleration, and stable coordination of all parts of your body. It won’t directly add tons of weight to your barbell max. There is, however, ample evidence that there is unexpected improvement in bigger lifts.

The grass is always greener on the other side. If you don’t believe it, go to a park and find the greenest patch of grass and sit. Then look around and see if there’s greener. I assure you there is.

My powerlifting background taught me that training every day was not healthy. When I was squatting twice my body weight for sets of five, I needed at least a day of rest, if not three, for any benefit. So naturally I doubted the S&S protocol of daily training.

However, swings and getups were filling gaps in powerlifting training. For example, I’m building all-around shoulder stability in connection with the rest of my body. I’m also balancing the strength between the two sides of my body. These can easily be overlooked in basic powerlifting exercises. Back to the issue of daily training.

At first I was constantly sore, and it was certainly difficult to train every day. I would wake up to find my whole body tight and achy. Rather than decide not to train at that moment, I would put off the judgment call. Instead, I went through my morning routine. I drank butter coffee and journaled, basically enjoying life as I woke up. When training time came, I felt better and went for it.

It’s been about two and half months as of this writing, and my recovery time is shortening. I’ve managed to take just one day off in the last eight weeks. I’m doing all sets now with the 24kg, and my swings and getups are getting stronger. My callouses are smooth and my mind feels sharp. I look forward to training most days. Just like Tsatsouline says in Kettlebell Simple & Sinister, the exercise has become a “recharge” instead of a “workout”.

After the initial struggle, I started to look forward to the training. S&S is remarkably effortless compared to other strength programs.

First, the only equipment needed is the kettlebell. No gym, no shoes, no machines, no bars nor weights. S&S prescribes 8kg for average strength women and 16kg for average strength men.

Second, the exercise leaves me with plenty of energy for the rest of my day. I gradually adapted to the training, and became more efficient in the movements.

Finally, it’s convenient and accessible. Because it’s a small weight, I can keep it at home. This saves time and eliminates the ill effects of sitting in a car on the way to a gym. It also leaves little excuse for not training.

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As I transitioned from 16kg to the 24kg kettlebell, I felt much more tired at night and needed more food. But I stuck with it, ate a little more, and managed to train every day. The jumps in weight by proportion are much greater than with progression barbell training. I imagine the next transition to 32kg will be even harder. I look forward to that too.

Do some digging in the StrongFirst website to see if this is for you. If you decide to take on the kettlebell, I strongly recommend that you read the book first. Mind before matter.

Live powerfully.

Steve

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Copyright © 2017 Steve Ko, All rights reserved.

Practice

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I’ve been to less than ten yoga classes ever. I realize that might be more than most men, but even so, ten classes isn’t much for something I value so highly. Yoga is meditation through the moving and posed body, to me. As much as I love it, I have gleaned just one pose from those sessions: and I don’t even know what it’s called.

I love this pose. It connects me to the ground and the sky. I find my balance through it, and it’s gentle enough that I can do it first thing in the morning. I get a great stretch in my hips, groin, and shoulders. Also, I get some development in my foot arch by doing it.

The other reason I love this pose so much is that I get the chance, on sunny mornings, to have some sun time for my  eyes. I’m recently using the Bates method, created to improve vision. I’ve worn lenses for most of my life, and only recently have been discovering that I don’t always need them. So it’s been great time out in the sun as well.

It strikes me how little of what I learn from classes, books, and the internet actually sticks in my mind and gets put into practice. I am an avid learner. I believe that well thought programs or stories or instructions are to be carefully absorbed, digested, and correctly put into practice. There’s a big difference between your quick news article, telling you that omega 3’s are good so you should eat flax seed, and a book, which provides carefully gathered information and deep thought to tie it all together. So when I come upon good instruction, I take care to look at the details.

The latest example of this is in Kettlebell – Simple and Sinister, a book about beginner kettlebell training by Pavel Tsastouline. I love this book. It’s simple, concise, and comprehensive. The thing is, every word in this short guide matters. As I began kettlebell training, however, I couldn’t possibly incorporate everything from the book into my actual behavior. It’s always a matter of time and effort when learning something new. There’s just so much already programmed into my mind and body. It is taking lots of trying to add new movement and muscle recruitment, change old ways that don’t work, and get rid of the harmful patterns.

So as I learn to swing and get up with my precious modified cannonball, I keep going back to the text. There is literally always something that I haven’t incorporated, or something I missed, or a completely forgotten technique from the first few times I read it. And every time, it’s like an exciting new task to get it better in my next training session.

Practice makes perfect, they say. But what makes practice?

Will.

I look for information so that I can improve my self, my life, or the world. To take something from outside, however small, absorb it, and then make it a part of my daily life to my benefit, is the ultimate purpose of information. Yes, there is “entertainment value” in things. But even entertainment is a form of improving life.

The internet keeps growing. The rate of information growth increases by the second: every second, the amount of info added to the net is more than the second before it. This makes me sort of panic. How am I going to access it all for my advantage? I can speed read all the articles in the universe and end up with tired eyes and ears, if I use the audio versions too.

But none of it matters except that I can make practice of the stuff that matters.

When you took what you learned, tried it, liked it, and began doing it regularly, you made it a practice. And practice can make perfect. But through practice you also cultivate that golden fruit, experience. Pavel refers to Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan:

“We are built to be dupes for theories. But theories come and go; experience stays.”

Make it a practice.

Live powerfully,

Steve

Swingin’ Iron

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Best gym floor, ever.

I’ve been forcefully hauling this iron ball, to and fro, between my legs. It’s fun. Here are my first thoughts on kettlebell training.

Two months ago I “picked up” the book, Kettlebell – Simple and Sinister. It is written by Pavel Tsatsouline, Russian trainer and founder of StrongFirst. He is the father of kettlebell training in the U.S. I am grateful to him for his straightforward instruction and commentary on starting kettlebell training. Get the audio version. It rocks.

The long drive to the only suitable powerlifting gym in town rendered it useless to me. After taking up the 16kg kettlebell, which is the basic Russian unit 1 pood, I never once stepped foot in a “gym” in the last two months. Home and the local park are now my gym. Swinging and getting up with this little cannonball, by its handle, has taught me so much about my nervous system, my shoulders, and the little cracks in my strength that powerlifting does not directly address.

Most of my strength training techniques for powerlifting translate directly to kettlebell training. Absolute emphasis on form and technique; mental cues to wire them into my system; rest and recovery; breathing and abdominal pressure; and progression.

I had to get used to the type of progression that kettlebell training presented. Unlike powerlifting progression, where weight can progress with every new session, kettlebell training weight remains the same for long periods of time. As a matter of fact, I’ve been using the same weight since I began two months ago!

It doesn’t trouble me, though. The weight is heavy to begin with, and there’s much to learn in properly handling it. This is where the development happens. Swinging a 35 lb. hunk of iron, as smoothly cast as it may be, is no walk in the park. Learning to do so while keeping the spine intact, holding the shoulders in place, and creating torque through the feet and body gets complicated from moment zero.

The progression unfolds in mastering the movements, and in increasing the force, power, and focus on the kettlebell as strength gets better. By learning to handle the weight, I am building the physical parts and the neurological programs of my body that are involved. It’s similar to powerlifting, but with more emphasis on the learning. Powerlifting requires learning, of course. But once you learn the technique and form, the emphasis is on the weight progression.

There is definitely a big difference between squatting 135 pounds and squatting 315 pounds. However, with kettlebell training the weight jumps to 16kg at the start, then to 24 kg, and then to 32 kg, and so forth. The “catch up” with each weight progression is much greater than in powerlifting. I would never have a trainee jump from a 135 lb. squat to 1.5x that, 205 lb., even if his technique and form were perfect. The weight jump is way too much to make any physiological sense in the frame of training.

With the kettlebell, though, the weight is smaller. So jumping from 16 kg to 24 kg is probably going to be difficult, but not ridiculously so. I am confident that I will be able to safely train to the next weight when the time comes. Which is soon!

Right now, the hardest part is resting. This always seems to be the sticking point for me. Simply getting good sleep is a task that tends to evade me when I need it most. I’ve been training nearly every day, with a rest day approximately once a week. When I don’t get that rest, I can feel it in the lack of power on my swing. It just seems so much harder to hip hinge forward and get that maximal explosion. Like I’m moving through molasses.

I’m sticking through it and am now able to get in 100 swings, alternating one armed, and ten getups within half an hour. It will soon be time to up the weight. Soon, but not until I can do the sets strong, as Pavel says. Not until I can own each and every swing and getup at one pood.

Read the book before you start training. Let me know if you do train with the kettlebell. What was it like toward the transition period to the next weight?

Live powerfully,

Steve

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I link to tools I have found to be useful and meaningful.

Note: I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.

Copyright © 2016 Steve Ko, All rights reserved.