Vulnerability is Strength

Electra, an Alaskan woman, sat down beside Andrew after the lunch interval. She was what one would expect of an American woman, matching the stereotype of loud and bubbly.

Her background growing up in a small mining town, she thought, had contributed to her many travels. The tight-knit community offered little freedom from people she didn’t know and getting away seemed a good way to expand her horizons. From half a year in a small fishing village in Honduras to four months in Greece, she had spent considerable time abroad since graduating college.

Her aunts had both worked abroad for much of their professional lives. This had driven Electra to pursue a similar degree.

“Ironically, I kind of want to settle down” she said as she shifted on the uncomfortable stone stool. “I look at my aunts and they’re both unmarried with no children. I think I want to have the experience of being a wife and mother,” she continued.

As children, our role models have a strong influence on what we pursue and the path we take, Andrew thought. Their dreams become ours. This often proves to be problematic as we grow, we realise we in fact have a separate vision but have already invested significant time into another path.

“What about you Andrew? I know you’ve only just arrived but what comes next?” Electra spoke with an annoying American twang.

Andrew spoke his mind, in broad terms anyway. Opening up and being vulnerable were not his strengths. He spoke of two conflicting opportunities – opening of one door would result in closing of the other. Although he was nearly sure of which road to take, the finality of making a decision weighed on him.

Electra began to talk of her childhood friends and how they were all getting married and having children. She went into more depth and Andrew nodded away in agreement.

Through vulnerability, you can really get to know a person, he pondered. Back at home, Andrew was a self-described vault. For some reason, he was proud of developing a hard, impenetrable exterior like the spiky surface of an immature chestnut. People, including those closest to him had given up asking for details for anything remotely personal. He liked it this way. He found though, that they failed to discuss the finer points of their personal lives as a result. They mirrored his behaviour.

Andrew did not mind not knowing the ins and outs of their private lives. He had begun to recognise, however, that by failing to get intimate, it halted progress of a relationship, not allowing it to get to the same depth he had seen others share.

He made a pact to himself that he would be more vulnerable, sharing more of himself in the process. What’s the worst that could happen?

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Presence

The academy did not offer water or toilet paper. This gave enough reason for Andrew to venture to the nearest town. Thankfully, Martian offered to chaperone the newcomer.

“When we get to town, I show you which shop you can trust and no trust” he said as the Tuk-tuk spluttered up and down the hill. “Some time I buy green water. It make me sick”. Andrew committed Martian’s mistake to memory, though it seemed obvious that green water was likely to result in an upset stomach at the very least.

Meat hung from a vendors stall at the main intersection of the town. After paying the driver, Martian and Andrew made their way to the trusted supermarket. Martian had begun to open up on the short drive in. His time in China was a matter of more than learning a martial art. Difficulty finding work coupled with the high cost of living in Poland had forced his hand. Asia, to him, seemed like a good destination to begin the next leg of his life. Initially he plans to travel, living off his measly disability payment, before looking for work. Not wanting to pry, Andrew has yet to uncover the exact nature of the disability and its severity.

Martian is of the belief that the Caucasian man is in high demand in Asia. “White man can get well-paid job doing very little. White English teacher paid same amount in one day as Chinese English teacher gets paid in one month” he exclaimed with the most exuberance Andrew had observed up to this point.

They picked up what they needed, including two cumbersome water jugs, the type one would normally find atop a water cooler. Hopping aboard the Tuk-tuk, Martian spoke, “In China, you can live simple life, if that’s what you want”. As was typical, he did not expand on this thought, but Andrew began to think.

Life can be interpreted in so many ways. Every culture, every person has his or her own view on what constitutes a good life. Then there are those, like Andrew, who are unsure of the right path.

His readings had exposed to him to ideas of the hunter-gatherers who may have stumbled on the recipe for a happy life. That’s the essence of life isn’t it? Happiness? Or is it contribution? Andrew had yet to work this one out.

“Lots of poverty in China, but China rich” Martian pointed out as they neared the academy. Andrew went back to his thinking learning that a single sentence often constituted a conversation for the Polish national.

Hunter-gatherers and others of similar ilk have a greatly reduced sense of the future. They are concerned primarily with the present moment. They did not have to rely on crops but their expert foraging skills. A slip-up in this mindset, to think of tomorrow for example, could be detrimental to their current state. Perhaps this is what drew him to researching these cultures as his mind was forever stuck in the past or present. This current method of living proved tiresome and unfulfilling.

Brief Introductions

The drive through the countryside was eye opening. Although he had been to China on a past expedition, Andrew had been limited to the burgeoning cities of Shanghai and Beijing.

As if to meet the stereotype, smog interfered with clarity of the surrounding landscape. New plant growth flanked the motorways in an effort to counter the mass deforestation taking place elsewhere.

One thing that stood out, in addition to the destitution, was the people’s resourcefulness.  Families clustered alongside the road plucking what one must assume are edible produce. Vehicles take to the road where the horn takes precedence. Tuk-tuks and makeshift motorbikes shift unwieldy loads from metal sheeting and girders to unbalanced stacks of cardboard.

His arrival at the academy was meet with no fanfare. This suited him to a tee. A polite and typical introduction from an American was the extent of it. The American had been here 8 months and plans to stay another 4. Going by the name Forde, he comes across as the affable scamp of the group. At 19, the smoking, drinking and blond-tipped youngster nonchalantly told of how, earlier in the day he had accidentally severed the toe of a local boy by losing grip of a beer keg.

The others in the group are less vocal, or more accurately, let the conversation be shared at the dinner table. ‘Chef’ as she is known, offered up a collection of vegetable-laden dishes this evening, which according to the other tenants is common fare. The outliers on the dinner table, perhaps included in an effort to meet Western expectations, included bowls of fries and salad comprising of tomato and sprouts dressed heavily in sugar.

The conversation at dinner was pleasant. Alistair, a twenties-something Englishman, began at the academy 3 months back having been made redundant. An engineer by trade, Alistair is far from shy often combining wit with dry humour typical of the British.

Martian is Polish. Or at least that’s what Andrew thought his name to be. He did not wish to ask him again as the Polish man, being the oldest of the group, possesses an aura of authority. Conversations with Martian are blunt but useful. He’ll willingly tell you what you want to know, albeit in the shortest way possible.

The Journey Begins

Labelled a thinker by his Nonna when still an infant, Andrew has lived up to the billing. The journey to the academy, 3 legs on a plane plus an adventurous taxi drive, had his thoughts churning.

Why had he come to China? Was he hoping to achieve something in particular or was it merely an opportunity to escape from the rigidity of his hometown and the oppressive social norms?

He still didn’t know, though as with all things, a combination of factors undoubtedly played their part.

Fittingly, in the week leading up to departure, Andrew had experienced a shift in mindset. Reading Tony Robbins often has that effect on people. As someone who is easily angered, Robbins insights had taught Andrew that, his reactions were a consequence of self-imposed rules. Rules which others had no awareness of. Having developed this understanding, Andrew had been working to alter his rule system and also recognised that most of those around him, are not malicious but well intentioned.

Things had started to happen too. He was more open, viewing most situations as an opportunity to learn.

Late in the week he had visited his Nonna. The lady has a love for her family that only just exceeds that for her garden. As he made his way through the back gate, as is customary, there she sat on an upturned milk crate chopping the roots off green, leafy vegetables. She called him over to proffer advice.

‘You must call your mother every second day. At least. She worry about you’ she says in English yet to be refined despite 50 years living in Australia. Andrew assured her that he’ll keep in regular contact. His mother comes over and the two begin to converse. As they do, Andrew took stock of the situation.

It had become evident to Andrew that life is made up of the small things. Looking across his Nonna’s garden, it offered fennel, beans and spinach. He thought to himself, why haven’t I taken the opportunity to spend more time with Nonna in the garden? Learning about agriculture and subsistence living has always appealed to him. He made a mental note to block out some time to help out in ‘la giardina’ upon his return.

The Paradox of Play

There has been a recent uprising in approaching exercise and skill development with ‘play’ in mind. Enjoyment should form a fundamental part of physical training (or any training for that matter) as it breeds consistency and longevity.

Unfortunately, opting for a ‘play’ approach when it comes to planning your program as an adult is flawed.

Turning back the clock

Children have the ability to quickly learn skills from the piano to swinging across monkey bars like a chimpanzee. They only have to dedicate a small portion of time relative to their adult counterparts to achieve the same result. When a child masters the monkey bars, she doesn’t have the intent of doing so, but sees other kids having fun and decides that she too wants to have fun. This hedonistic approach is what fuels a child’s skill development.

What happens next is simple. After observing a fun-looking skill, the child attempts the movement, often failing many times in the process. Through continued trial and error, she eventually develops competency.

Many factors contribute to why the young learn with such ease and pace. For one, they are not frightened by failure. Also, their maturing brains have the capacity to develop motor patterns at a rate far greater than that of an adult via neural plasticity.

The power of habits

Habits are why adults can’t approach skill development with only ‘play’ in mind. Habits can be related to work, sport or lifestyle, and strengthen over time. Western civilised society fosters certain habits, such as spending long periods of time sitting, which in turn creates imbalances. The development of tight pectoral muscles, drawing the shoulders forward into a slouched posture being a prime example.

Faulty movement patterns arise too.

You see, children are not afflicted with these flaws to the same degree because they are afforded more movement variability. They are not yet shackled to a 9-5 job which requires long periods of sitting, nor do they rely on Netflix for their entertainment, lessening the load on their rump.

First with the head, then with the heart

A playful attitude towards skill development for an adult will unlikely lead to the results that a child can achieve. Although it’s crucial to keep ‘play’ in mind, it cannot be relied upon when it comes to achieving training-related goals.

This is where conditioning comes in.

Conditioning isn’t as sexy as the play aspect of training but plays the part of countering imbalances. For example, assuming your goal is to improve your weighted squat, conditioning work may focus on improving glute activation (which may be compromised thanks to sitting) through exercises like the hip thruster. Breaking old habits takes time. This is another reason why an adults progress is slowed relative to a child.

So what does this all mean?

‘First with head and then with the heart’. This is the motto with which Peekay, the main character from Bryce Courtney’s ‘The Power of One’, lives by, allowing him to achieve the goals which he has set himself.

Approach training pragmatically. Know that conditioning forms a vital part of your program and progress. At the same time, maintain a degree of exuberance. A child-like approach makes training enjoyable as well as sustainable.

What are your thoughts on ‘play’ as it applies to training? Leave a comment below.

Lu Xiaojun – Olympic Weightlifting

You’d be forgiven if you mistook Lu Xiaojun for a superhero. His armour-plated physique is a trademark of his brand.

Lu is a Chinese weightlifter of the highest calibre. He claimed gold at the 2012 Olympic games while also capturing three world championships along the way in the 77kg class. Lu claimed silver at the Rio games where he was pipped thanks to a world record effort by Nijat Rahimov of Kazakhstan.

Take a look at Lu’s background and you’ll notice factors which have contributed to his impressive accomplishments.

Genetics

It would be naive to think genetics don’t play an important part in athletic development. The way an individual is built facilitates success in certain endeavours and difficulty in others.

Before weightlifting, Lu was a sprinter, with the 200m and 400m being his forte. This suggests a predisposition to power. Lu likely possesses a high proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibres, allowing him to generate massive amounts of force required for the Olympic lifts.

As a child, strength came easily to Lu. His mother reported he was able to easily shift loads which others would struggle with.

Strong values

Growing up in rural China provided Lu with a solid grounding. Farm living instilled in him high levels of determination, the ability to endure hardship and withstand hard work.

Lu viewed his childhood as the cornerstone of his future success.

Support network

No one makes it on their own.

Despite living in poverty, Lu was sent to a provincial boarding school due to his prodigious talent. His family provided him with an opportunity to pursue excellence.

Financial hardship continued to plague Lu and his family. At one stage, Lu almost gave it all up. His family’s farm was under threat and could have used the money which was paying for his tuition. Lu’s coach, Dengling Hu, wouldn’t allow it but recognised something needed to change. He made arrangements for Lu to move to a different school which not only required less funding but also provided him with greater opportunities to progress as a lifter. Success soon followed.

With his body bruised and battered, Lu quit the national team in 2006. Two years passed when he was approached by Yu Jie. He wanted to coach Lu. The two were a near-perfect match and a partnership was formed. Their understanding of one another was a key component to the success which followed, culminating in Olympic gold.

Deeper meaning

For Lu, weightlifting was more than a sport. It was a pathway out of poverty for him and his family. The sacrifices his parents made instilled a deep level of gratitude. He was determined to pay his debt.

Initially it began with small contributions. After a tournament, Lu would send the winnings to his family. As his star continued to rise, so did his contributions.

After the London Olympics in 2012, Lu returned to his home town. He was intent on helping the impoverished community, and in particular the children, aiding in areas like home construction. To provide ongoing support he founded the ‘Love Fund’. It is believed he plans to auction his gold medals with the proceeds going towards this fund.

Lu be continued?

Genetics, strong values, a loving support network and a deeper meaning behind the sport all formed part of the Lu’s recipe for success.

At 32 Lu’s future is unclear, he is unlikely to make it to the next Olympic Games. Perhaps he’s aiming his sights for one more world championship gold. This would be a fitting way to end his already impressive lifting career.

 

 

Do Flat Feet Affect Performance?

Foot shape varies markedly, from high prominent arches to lowly pancake feet. Does foot structure impact upon how we move, or is it inconsequential like the shape of one’s nose relative to smelling ability?

A flat foot has long been regarded as detrimental to athletic performance. Impaired balance, reduced power output and increased injury risk are purported negatives of a flat-footed athlete. In World War II, the US Army turned down thousands of potential recruits for this very reason. Even today foot structure is looked upon by professional sporting scouts and military personnel as a marker of insufficiency or increased risk.

The evidence suggests flat-footedness is not a disadvantage. A study conducted in 2009  compared 11-15 year olds after dividing them into four categories based on their foot composition. The participants performed a battery of tests looking at speed, coordination, balance and force production. The results demonstrated no significant differences between the groups.

Further strengthening the notion that flat feet do not effect performance are examples of  athletes who have succeeded at the highest level. Said Aouita, the Moroccan track and field athlete won gold at the 1984 Olympics in the 5000m. Also, soccer stars of past and present, David Beckham and Lionel Messi, are believed to have flat feet.

The question beckons – would these athletes have reached higher heights had they not been burdened with flat feet? Did they succeed in spite of their foot structure?

Ideally, more evidence needs to be gathered in a controlled environment to answer this question. At present the research is limited. Future studies focusing on different age groups as well as injury risk, would be useful for budding athletes and recruiters searching for ideal candidates.

Regardless of an individuals foot make-up, training the foot should form part of every training regime, from recreational to professional level. We train every other area of the body, why neglect the humble foot which plays a fundamental role in transferring force and balance?

Adding to this, feet are constrained in shoes for a good portion of the day. The restrictive nature of these casts is incomparable to any other body part, thus the need to mobilise the foot is amplified.

The web is full of resources to develop a more active foot. You can find examples here and here. What are your thoughts on the flat foot?

How To Build a Skill

Developing skills efficiently can be summarised by:

  1. Setting a skill-related goal
  2. Creating an appropriate program
  3. Training
  4. Gathering feedback
  5. Training with criticisms in mind
  6. Repeating step 3 to 5 until the goal has been achieved

Set a goal

Self-development books and coaches have diluted the importance of goal setting. Regardless, it remains an important part of the skill development process.

A goal needs to be specific and the number of goals kept to a minimum. An inverse relationship exists between the number of goals set and the likelihood of success. The greater the number the lesser the chance of the desired result.

Sample – Perform a 30 second free standing handstand.

Devise a program

Ask yourself, do you have the knowledge to create a targeted program and have you had success with self-programming in the past?

Even if you answered the above questions with a robust ‘yes’, oftentimes finding an expert to provide you with a program is the best option. Their unbiased approach means they are unlikely to skimp on the drills you might leave out due to indifference. Furthermore, ideally they have mastered the skill you’re looking to develop and have a road map to get there.

Train

The cornerstones of an optimal training protocol are consistency, mindfulness, quality-centred and progression. Keeping these four factors in mind, while enjoying the process, to create a conducive training environment.

Gather feedback

Be critical of your efforts. When performing a movement, ask yourself – how does this feel? What went wrong with that last rep? What went right?

In addition to internal feedback, film yourself and collect objective data.

While self-feedback is valuable and will account for the majority of feedback received, asking others for their assessment is important too. If possible, ask a wide number of sources from experts who can pick apart your form and provide constructive ways to improve it, to the layman who can provide an unbiased perspective.

Adjust

Return to training and work on the areas requiring attention. Include specific drills if necessary.

Rinse and repeat

Continue to train, collect feedback and make adjustments until you reach your goal. The process is simple but far from easy. A lack of consistent feedback is a common stumbling block. Without this cog, its analogous to sailing a ship without paying heed to the compass. You’ll make it to land eventually, though it’s unlikely to be your target destination!

Matt Perryman used the example of treating the body as a garden, making small tweaks and adjustments based on what you feel. The same parallels can be drawn to skill development.

You start with a vacant plot of land with an idea of how you want your future garden to look (setting a goal).

Next, the landscaper creates a blueprint (creating an appropriate program).

Then you begin to work the land – sowing seeds, removing weeds and rotten tree trunks (training).

As you progress, you take stock of the garden and make comparisons to your blueprint. You ask others for their opinions too (gather feedback).

With feedback in mind, you make tweaks to the garden, continuing to move towards completion (training with criticisms in mind).

After a period of time with consistent application and patience, your dream garden comes to fruition (skill developed).

What are your thoughts on the process outlined above? Are any steps missing? Leave your thoughts below.

GMB Integral Strength: Week Eight Review

Week eight marked the end of Integral Strength (IS).

As expected, it offered no surprises, being a continuation of the previous week. The emphasis remained on efficiency and building work capacity.

Over the past two months I have gathered many lessons from the team at GMB. Take a look back at the summaries from the previous weeks…

The message which resonated with me most strongly was the shift in mindset which IS elicited and that is, place less emphasis on reps and sets (though they have their place) and more focus on quality, mindful practice. This, I will carry with me for the rest of my training days.

Why is this so fundamental? Adopting this mindset helps to…

  • Facilitate progression – Rather than compromising form to get through the allocated number of sets and reps, mindfulness encourages perfect practice. Over time, the most efficient and effective motor patterns are laid down rather than haphazard ones.
  • Reduce frustration – Plateaus are part of the game. By focusing solely on the quantifiable it is difficult to gauge progress when you can no longer add that extra rep. In contrast, by being mindful with your training, even though your session might look identical to the last on paper, you’ll be able to recognise progress courtesy of an improvement in quality.
  • Increased body awareness – Although it may sound wishy-washy, a conscious awareness of what your body is doing becomes invaluable. Like a thermostat, you develop an understanding of each body part, and are able to make fine adjustments on the fly, improving your movement quality.

Understandably, this program isn’t for everyone. In my opinion, it is suitable for those new to bodyweight training, looking to build a base. IS is not goal oriented though helps to develop the mindset mentioned above, as well as a reasonable work capacity.

Individuals coming from a traditional strength training background will find this program underwhelming, primarily due to the low volume. Also, people with some experience in bodyweight training, will likely feel the same way.

Good bye for now IS! Along with the lessons gathered over the course of the program, I have developed a better understanding of how to create a minimalistic program for traveling. GMB’s targeted programs, like floor skills, interest me and I may embark on such a program in the future.

What has your experience been with IS, or any of GMB’s programs for that matter? I’d love to hear about it. Leave a comment below.