Mindfulness Fundamentals

What springs to mind when you think of meditation?

Reverent Buddhist monks sitting in faraway caves? Vegans lecturing people on the dangers of sunscreen to coral reef health?

Me too.

I was sceptical when it came to trying meditation. Though after reading from reputable, non-hippie sources, I gave it a go.

I’ve found mindfulness practice to be less holy and more pragmatic than I first thought. Consistent practice helps me to keep a clear mind and make better decisions.

Many versions of meditation exist. Some focus on breath awareness while others are centred on repeating a mantra. But their goal is the same: to improve acuity.

Objectives

You’re not trying to block or stop thoughts from appearing. Mindfulness is being aware of your thoughts. Once you can recognise them, you can choose what to do with them.

Let’s say you’re in conversation with a friend. Something she says prompts a thought. Though, instead of interrupting your buddy, you pocket the thought. You don’t ruminate on it but allow her to finish what she’s saying.

Application

Find a comfortable, upright spot where you won’t be distracted

Stay upright or you’ll risk nodding off. Comfort is important too. During practice, you don’t want to be concerned with maintaining a position that makes your back ache. A good chair is best.

Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth

Start with a handful of larger-than-normal breaths. Then let your breathing settle into a normal rhythm.

Pay attention to the breath

The mind needs to be occupied by something. By paying close attention to your breathing, it fills the void that would otherwise be filled by internal chatter.

What do you feel when you breathe in? Focus on your tummy rising and falling. When breathing out, feel the air passing out of your mouth.

The sensation you focus on is not important, just keep it breath-focused.

Don’t get frustrated by incoming thoughts

Each time you find yourself being drawn in, bring your attention back to the breath. It could be minutes before you realise your mind is off track. That’s normal.

Count each breath to keep yourself accountable.

Start small

Begin with short practices of two to three minutes. Build your sessions to ten minutes, and beyond, with time.

Ten minutes a session is enough for me. I found more benefit from adding extra sessions in throughout the day rather than making a session longer. It’s like hitting the reboot button.

Summary

Does ‘mindfulness’ still have you picturing a guy with dreadlocks chained to a tree munching on a veggie burger?

I hope not.

Just as you go to the gym to train your physical body’ mindfulness practice is training for your brain. You’ll be rewarded with better concentration, mood and patience.

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Dangerous Exercises

Are there bad exercises?

The shoulder press and barbell row, among others, have a reputation for being bad boy exercises. Perform them at your peril.

Why do some exercises get branded as ‘bad’? Much of the time it’s because:

  • They are technique-oriented. If there isn’t a focus on form, something could go wrong.
  • The lifter can get away with lifting a lot – poorly – to satisfy their ego.

The scapegoat

The deadlift is the posterboy for ‘dangerous’ exercises.

The name doesn’t help.

It looks like a simple exercise. Pick a weight off the floor and place it down. But the deadlift is more intricate. One of its challenges is to engage the whole body rather than heaving with the lower back.

Correct breathing is another. The spine stays neutral and safe when there is tension in the abdomen. But without it, the back rounds.

Also, ego tends to take control and form flies out of the window.

The fix

Become a stickler for form

At the end of a deadlift session, and the next day, ask yourself, where do I feel sore?

It’s OK for the lower back to feel a little tight. But the glutes, lats and hamstrings are the workhorses of the deadlift. They should feel fatigued.

If this isn’t the case and your lower back is on fire, lessen the load. Improve your form before adding more plates.

Train infrequently

The deadlift is demanding on the central nervous system. It calls on many muscles under a lot of load.

Therefore, rest is important.

Rest intervals between sets should be 3 minutes to allow your body to recover. Also, train once a week to start with. Let your body get used to the movement. Frequency can increase over time.

High-frequency training is a good idea to groove technique. But the deadlift is the exception to the rule.

The wrap-up

If you find yourself weighing up the risks and rewards of an exercise, ask:

  • Am I confident? If you’re not, pick a simpler variation. Start with the goblet squat if the back squat fills you with angst.
  • Am I feeling muscle soreness in the right areas? If the answer is no, take a look at your form. Get an expert to assess and help with any adjustments. Regularly filming yourself is another way to gauge progress and keep tabs on your technique.

Of the conventional lifts, some are more challenging than others. But none are inherently dangerous. Be selective with your exercise selection. Especially if you lack confidence or are working around an injury.

Fear around exercises can be circumvented by focusing on form and recognising the influence of your ego.

Do you think any exercises are dangerous? If so, which ones? Let’s discuss below.

The Obstacle Is The Way By Ryan Holiday

The Obstacle Is The Way by Ryan Holiday is a book based on Stoic philosophy.

Zeno of Citium, in 301BC, was believed to be the first Stoic. But Stoicism wasn’t popularised until years later. Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius grew its stature.

Stoicism has many interpretations. Though, the key pillars are the same:

  • Foster a strong mental state. Build your inner citadel, as Holiday says. Stoics believe that true happiness and meaning comes from your mindset and outlook. While external things, like money, are necessary, they don’t bring lasting happiness and cause more harm than good.
  • Emotional awareness. Emotions are beyond our control – most of the time. How often is your judgement clouded by anger or happiness? Stoics are aware of how they feel and don’t let emotions dictate their actions. Instead, they approach situations objectively – with clarity.
  • Accept the world and live in harmony with it. There is no point resisting or getting upset about the things that are out of your control. Instead, focus on what you can control.

Image result for the obstacle is the way

Lessons

Obstacles are opportunities

You should not frown on problems. They are opportunities to practice a virtue or develop a skill. Stuck in traffic? Practice patience. Lost a loved one? Learn to value those around you.

To see obstacles as opportunities, you need be aware of the obstacle and how you feel about it. Next, approach the situation objectively. Keep your emotions in check. Finally, ask yourself, ‘What good can come out of this? What can I learn?’

Small hurdles are a good way to get in the habit. It’s much harder to be objective when something big happens. But, with time, it’s possible.

Wear out or rust out?

When it comes to your final days, do you want to be worn out, having given life all you’ve got? Or rusted out, having played things safe?

We see aggression as a bad thing because it’s linked with violence. But Holiday says you need to attack life to get things done. Too often you plod along at a leisurely pace. Be proactive and see what’s possible.

Don’t hang back because you think the outlandish things can’t be achieved. What if you pursued it relentlessly?

Pivot

Defeat is education and failure is a feedback mechanism, according to the Stoics.

Failure doesn’t mean you’ve failed as a person. Your process wasn’t quite right, that’s all. Instead of curling up into a ball and giving up, ask yourself, ‘How can I approach this situation differently?’

If you fail in your goal to overhead press 100 kg, ask yourself: ‘What went wrong?’ Look over your notes. Appreciate that certain things worked well while others didn’t. Then, make changes and keep going.

Strength

I find books on philosophy difficult to read. Although the concepts are useful, the Ancient texts lack rhythm. It feels like my mind is trudging through mud.

This wasn’t the case with Holiday’s modern interpretation.

The Obstacle Is The Way is a comfortable read. The references to the distant past don’t slow the flow of the book but add depth.

Weakness

The teeny criticism I have is to have included more examples of how to apply the principles.

Rating

Everyone would benefit from reading this book. The information is widely applicable. From those pursuing a specific endeavour, like athleticism, to other looking to improve as a whole.

My rating in 8.5/10 ancient Roman beards.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on The Obstacle Is The Way. Leave a comment in the section below.

References

Longevity Versus Performance

Does eating for performance negatively impact on health and longevity?

People who look to get the most out of their body on the field or in the gym eat differently to those who aim to live a long life.

Performance nutrition

A performance-based diet requires a high-calorie intake to:

  • Build or maintain muscle, which is metabolically demanding
  • Replenish glycogen stores, particularly for athletes involved in aerobic sports
  • Provide the athlete with adequate energy levels

On average, eating for performance demands:

  • High calories
  • A macronutrient ratio skewed toward higher carb and protein intake for energy and muscle-building purposes
  • A greater percentage of calories coming from animal-based products in order to get enough protein

Nutrition for longevity

A low-calorie diet is often associated with eating for health and longevity. This is because:

  • The cells of the body have to do less work. Imagine two cars: one that is driven cross-country a lot, the other, to the shops twice a week. The first car will succumb to wear and tear. The second won’t
  • The body becomes more efficient at processing calories reducing the workload for the body

A typical longevity-based diet requires:

  • Low calories
  • A macronutrient ratio higher in fats due to lower carbohydrate and protein intake
  • More vegetables due to their health properties

Real world examples

The athletic population is a good example of a group eating for performance. The research for life expectancy among athletes is mixed. Some studies suggest a longer life expectancy, compared to average, while others propose the opposite.

Monks are a good example of people who eat for longevity. Many monks fast and they live longer than most.

So, there is a reason to believe that an athletic diet is not the most effective way to live the longest possible life. But, statistically, its difficult to prove because:

  • The athletic population is diverse. Statistics show different life expectancies for different sports with NFL players being notoriously low. Also, there is too much individual variation. Lumping athletes into categories fails to consider that each person eats and lives differently. The best performing athletes could eat a diet that also promotes longevity. But this wouldn’t show up in the stats.
  • There are too many variables to consider. Nutrition is only one piece of the performance puzzle and a long life. Other factors like sleep and stress levels also have a bearing.

Do you think eating for performance shortens a person’s life? Leave your thoughts below.

Žydrūnas Savickas – Strongman

Žydrūnas Savickas is arguably the strongest man to have graced the earth.

Known as ‘Big Z’, the man mountain tips the scales at 180kg at a height of 1.91m. Savickas, forty-one years old,  is a Lithuanian strongman and former powerlifter.

Savickas interests in strength sports were piqued after watching a strongman event on TV as a teenager. This sparked a career spanning more than two decades yielding truckload of trophies.

Accomplishments

Savickas has accumulated over fifty titles including four World’s Strongest Man victories and eight Arnold Strongman Classic’s. He is the only person to have won every current strongman competition.

But a long and profitable career looked unlikely in 2001 when he suffered a major setback…

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What makes him successful?

The ability to overcome adversity

In 2001, Savickas found himself competing in the rugged Faroe Islands. During Conan’s wheel event, an endurance-based challenge, he blew out both of his patellar tendons. Most thought his career was over. Tendon injuries are notoriously fickle. They have a poor blood supply and recovery is slow.

Also, the patellar tendons are fundamental in strength-based sports. They transfer the force created by quadriceps, the large muscles of the front part of the thigh, in movements like squatting.

Savickas was undeterred.

Nine months later, not only was the big Lithuanian competing – but winning – a national powerlifting competition. He would soon claim victory in his country’s strongman contest before placing second in the World’s Strongest Man.

The message here is: injuries are part of the sport and you must be willing to overcome hurdles to succeed.

Savickas rehabilitation was painful and arduous. Rebuilding his body was only part of the challenge. Conquering the mental demons from the traumatic injury, and again having faith in his body, would have been just as hard.

Longevity

Savickas’s body awareness – when to push and when to ease off – is another contributing factor to his long and successful career. Perhaps he learnt to listen to his body after the injury in 2001.

Autoregulation is a form of body awareness that you can apply. It uses ‘perceived levels of exertion’ – how difficult a lift was – to guide training. The main issue with autoregulation is it takes time under the bar to develop the skill of knowing how much effort a lift was. People fall into two camps: the conservative who don’t push hard enough and the aggressive who get burnt out or injured.

Be patient. Know when to load up and when to ease off.

Future plans

Forty-one is old in most sports. But Big Z has shown no signs of slowing down, claiming victory in the 2016 Arnold Strongman Classic. If the burly Lithuanian can continue to manage his body there’s no reason he can’t extend his career into his fifth decade emulating the evergreen strongman Mark Felix.

Mental Rehearsal

Mental rehearsal, like visualisation and imagery, are common terms in elite sport. What do they mean? Are they worthwhile? And should you include them in your day-to-day practice?

Rehearsal is imagining an event or moment. Picture yourself performing well. But don’t make your performance perfect. Make the re-creation accurate. If you’re squatting heavy, feel the bar’s pressure. Settle the butterflies in your tummy.

Mental rehearsal helps to:

  • Build confidence
  • Reduce anxiety
  • Improve the efficiency of motor patterns

It works because the brain can’t tell the difference between something you’re doing or something you’re imagining.

Use

It can be used to practice gym lifts or public speaking. The application of mental rehearsal is limited only by your imagination.

Benefits

Increased training time

Quality practice leads to success. The more practice the better. Mental rehearsal bypasses the hurdles that limit how much you can practice. Things like:

  • Commitments, such as family, friends and work
  • Injury
  • The need to rest and recover
  • Lack of appropriate equipment
  • Poor training conditions, like bad weather

Confidence

Nerves sharpen the senses but too much anxiety can hinder performance. Mental imagery helps build comfort through familiarity. When it’s time to do the ‘real thing’ you’ve already done it a hundred times. It’ll be like brushing your teeth.

Image result for mental rehearsal

Example

Your goal is to squat 200kg. Your training program calls for squatting four times a week. In addition, you mentally rehearse the lift each morning and evening (fourteen sessions). Therefore you train the squat, in some form, eighteen times a week instead of only four.

What does it look like?

Create a mental image of the squat rack and the bar loaded up to 200kg. Picture the entire process taking place as vividly as possible – the set-up, unracking the bar and squatting.

Keep it realistic. When executing the movement, in your head, re-create the struggle and effort. Try starting from the warm-up and feel the session become harder.

Weaknesses

Beginning mental imagery can be a frustrating process. How do you know if you’re doing it right? How do you know if it’s having any effect?

It’s difficult to evaluate the success of mental imagery. Changes to performance and your confidence are good indicators. Be patient. Don’t give up after a few attempts. Also, the practice shouldn’t take hours out of your week. A few minutes a day will suffice.

Application

You must commit long-term to see the benefits of mental imagery. Start with a three-month block. This gives you enough time to improve your imagination skills. Also, it allows for the brain to develop more effective motor pathways for your chosen task.

What are your thoughts on mental rehearsal? Have you used it? Did you find it effective? Leave a comment below.

 

The One-Arm Push-Up

The One-Arm Push-Up (OAPU), to me, was something out of bodyweight training folklore. An impressive movement limited to the very strong.

Though, finding myself without a goal, little equipment to work with and some inspiration from Rocky, I gave it a shot.

The plan

Four weeks was the time-frame to achieve 5 OAPU’s per side. I worked for three days and had every fourth day off. I saw the movement as a skill. The more frequently trained, the better. I lowered the volume because of the high frequency.

Day 1 –

  • Diamond push-ups: 3 sets x 8 repetitions
  • Inverted rows: 3 x 8
  • Hollow body hold: 3 x 30s

Day 2 –

  • Biased push-ups: 3 x 6
  • Inverted rows: 3 x 8
  • Hollow body hold: 3 x 30s

Day 3 –

  • Elevated eccentric push-ups: 3 x 5
  • Inverted rows: 3 x 8
  • Hollow body hold: 3 x 30s

Day 4 –

  • Rest

The inverted row and hollow body hold were included for shoulder balance and core strengthening. The OAPU is an upper body dominant movement. But it still needs core stability to be done well.

Image result for rocky one arm push-up

Progress

I kicked things off with a test. I couldn’t do the movement from the floor – unless free-falling onto my face counts – though I was able to complete the push-up in an elevated position, with my hand on a chair.

Using a combination of resources (see below) and intuition, I attacked the push-up, progressing as often as I could. Once I was comfortable with diamond push-ups I raised one hand onto a block to bias one side. I began doing elevated eccentric push-ups with a 3-second decent through half-range. As I improved, I worked up to 5 seconds through the full range at ground level.

As for the biased push-up, I experimented with variations. I found most benefit with having one hand on an elevated surface to reduce its contribution to the movement.

I re-tested at the half-way mark and was able to do a OAPU from an elevated surface. The height was about half of the chair I used when doing the initial testing. I progressed the row and hold. I widened my grip for the row and increased the hold to 45-seconds.

Key points

  • When working on single-arm variations, keep the working arm and elbow tucked into your side to get the lats involved. There should be no gap between your upper arm and ribcage.
  • Focus on whole body tightness. Maintain a hollow body posture throughout. It’s much easier to move a single unit then several different parts.
  • Allow the hips and feet to pivot with the movement. Your upper body should be perpendicular to the floor not parallel.

Common mistake

You don’t need to be able to do a mountain of regular push-ups (RPU) before working on the one-arm variation. If you can do twelve RPU’s, that’s enough.

Moving forward

I achieved my goal with one day to spare. I consolidated the movement over the next few weeks. I reduced the rep range to 3 x 3 OAPU’s and focussed on good form.

For now, the OAPU is on maintenance. I’m not boldly pursuing progression and I’m happy with small improvements. Narrowing the width of my feet (the narrower the stance, the harder the movement), for instance

Progressing the OAPU

The most challenging iteration is with feet together, like in a RPU. You can also elevate the feet, add weight or progress to plyometric variations.

If you would like help with doing your first OAPU, get in touch. Or, if you have any tips, strategies or questions, please leave them in the comments section below.

Resources

Awaken The Giant Within by Anthony Robbins

Awaken The Giant Within is Anthony Robbins Magnum Opus. It’s a heavy text covering many concepts to help you lead the life of your dreams. Many of the topics are what you would expect from any self-help book. But Robbins touches on some unique areas too. The importance of vocabulary, for example.

Is the book applicable for those pursuing strength? Believe it.

Lessons learnt

Find a role model

Having someone who is in the position you want to be in is invaluable. Their guidance can save you many hours. Is your goal to squat 200kg? Find someone who’s done it (and has a similar build) and your progress will be fast tracked.

Why do so few have a mentor?

You’re looking for the perfect match. It’s hard to find someone who is exactly where you want to be. You need to settle for the next closest thing.

A fear of rejection is another stumbling block. Either you don’t try at all or give up after a few failed email attempts. Be relentless in your pursuit. Err on the side of pissing them off with your eagerness and see what happens.

Question yourself

Thinking is the process of asking and answering our own questions. If you dwell on negativity, you create a harsh internal environment. Confidence and productivity suffer.

Robbins implores us to ask empowering questions:

“How can I make the most of this?”

Use your internal chatter to create a fertile mind.

Be impeccable

Don’t let things, people or situations dictate your life and how you feel. You decide how you feel. You can’t lay blame on anyone or anything else.

There will always be tricky situations. But you choose how you respond to them. Do you curl up into the fetal position and curse your bad luck? Or do you see the roadblock as an opportunity?

Curtailed by injury? Now, you have time to work on your weaknesses.

Build a code of conduct, Robbins suggests. How will you approach each minute?

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Strengths

The simplicity of the principles is a strength of Awaken The Giant Within. Robbins gives the reader a roadmap by providing strategies to act on the main concepts of the book.

Weaknesses

The amount of content is overwhelming. People who read this book fall into two categories:

  1. Those who get through the whole thing though are unable to digest all of the content.
  2. People who take their time with the reading and apply what they’ve learned along the way. But they don’t get to the book’s end.

Patience is the key with Awaken The Giant Within. Stick with it and don’t try to jam all of the lessons into your life at once

Rating

Awaken The Giant Within is the most well-rounded self-help book I’ve read. If you’re looking to shift your mindset, Robbins book is a good choice. If you’re looking to improve a specific area of your life, such as your health or finances, there are better options.

7/10 Tony Robbins fire walks.

How To Save The World

The world is getting fat.

We’re in the midst of an obesity epidemic. Wherever there is a Western influence, obesity follows. China is an example of this.

The Western diet, typified by fast food, is only part of the story. The impact of the West extends further than Micky D’s and Pizza Hut. Westernised media is also having a severe effect on the health of the globe. Their influence is being compounded by the boom of social media.

Being aware of the power of the media is important. But what we need is more well-informed and notable voices to combat their skewed messages. Most of what we’re told about our health lacks scientific backing. It’s centred on sound bites that capture our forever-diminishing attention.

The problem we face is the sciencey stuff is bland. Reading a research article evokes yawns, not excitement.

So, how do we make the stuff that can improve people’s lives captivating and easily understood? The answer lies in the delivery.

Combining art and science was a concept revolutionised by Leonardo da Vinci. If we can bring artistry and education together into a bite-sized package, we’ll be well on our way to healthier lives.

The onus is on you and me to create content that is truthful and informative while also being compelling to read or watch.

Challenge accepted.

Selective Speech

The ability to communicate well is underrated. There is almost always a fault in the lines of communication when an issue arises.

Communication is hard to define. A lot of it comes down to decision making. Should I say something or listen? Most of us are guilty of speaking too much and listening too little.

But the value is in listening. Have you learned something from talking? It’s by listening to others that we capture new knowledge. Listening builds trust. A good listener earns the respect of the speaker, building the relationship in the process.

There is another danger in speaking too much. What we say loses meaning.

The words we speak have value. A scarcity increases the worth of our words while a surplus reduces it, just like in economics. If we held our tongues more often, people will listen. There would be fewer misunderstandings too.

Is there a danger in speaking too little? Perhaps. But that’s a problem most of us don’t have to worry about.

When in conversation. Listen. Don’t be afraid of silence, it’s less sinister than you think.