Alex Honnold – Rock Climbing

Valley Uprising brought my attention to Alex Honnold.

The documentary covers the history of Yosemite National Park as a climbing hub and the greats who emerged over the years. A shy and awkward Honnold makes an appearance at the end of the feature. It’s hard to believe he’s the greatest free solo climber of all time.

Honnold’s climbing relies on nothing but chalk, shoes and several buckets of courage. He has climbed all over the world and completed the Yosemite Triple Crown – Yosemite’s three peaks – in 18 hours and 50 minutes. He holds a number of speed climbing records, the most recent being California’s Lover’s Leap.

What makes him successful?

Genetics

His ability to remain in control on a precarious rock face is what separates Honnold from the rest.

He earned the nickname, No Big Deal, as his attitude toward risky climbs borders on nonchalance. He is capable of detaching himself from his emotions and channels all his focus into navigating his way up the trickiest of climbs.

Is this something he’s nurtured over time or was he born with these abilities?

J.B. MacKinnon from Nautilus explored Honnold’s brain – with the help of science – to get to the bottom of this question. The fMRI, a machine that detects activity in different parts of the brain, showed no amygdala activity when Honnold was exposed to stress-causing images. The amygdala is a region of the brain responsible for emotions like fear.

A sleepy amygdala is common in thrill-seekers – people who need large jolts of sensation to get a dopamine hit – and Honnold’s brain activity was 20% higher still than his sensation-seeking buddies.

Experts suspect Honnold was born this way. Though, they speculate that over the years, with exposure to climbing, he has furthered the ability to turn off his nerves.

Student of the sport

A good example of Honnold’s climbing ability not being completely innate came during his first attempt at free climbing. Fear, he admitted, got the better of him.

He has combined his good genes with an intense rock climbing apprenticeship. As an 11-year-old, Honnold read all he could on the subject. He began a journal and jotted down detailed notes of each climb, including what he could improve on. Self-review is an underrated but valuable tool, given it’s not always possible to get feedback from others.

Honnold also visualises climbing. He rehearses what’s required to reach the peak before an attempt. He reviews what could go wrong along the way. By coming to terms with the potential pitfalls, Honnold knows what he’s getting himself into and makes the climb as objective as possible.

Mental rehearsal also allows Honnold to develop his motor memory. As he examines every hand hold and foot placement in his head, it consolidates his technique.

The future for Alex Honnold is simple – climb. Living out of his van, No Big Deal lives and breathes the sport. His life shows that by combining passion with a desire to improve can result in the remarkable.

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Self-Sabotage

“If you want something bad enough, you’ll find a way to get it”

That’s nonsense.

It’s not as simple as wanting a Land Rover Defender and the next day for it so be glistening in your driveway.

Self-sabotage prevents you from getting what you want. But by identifying insidious doubts and using strategies to negate them, there is a way to get that Defender (and not just imagine your beat-up Mitsubishi as a boulder-crushing beast).

Look at your goals – what do you really want in life? Take a fine tooth comb and analyse what it would take to get what you wanted. Do you still want it knowing the effort it will take?

Nothing of value comes easy, and you must be willing to make sacrifices. Big sacrifices.

What’s your gym goal? To squat twice your bodyweight or nail the elusive pull-up? If achieving a target is integral to you, does your plan reflect this?

Have you searched the net for a coach to guide you? Have you devoured every squat resource? Have you removed all extraneous exercises from your program?

No? Why the hell not?

I thought you said you really, really, really wanted to squat twice your bodyweight? Or punch out a pull-up? Or finally, achieve x?

That’s lesson number one for overcoming self-sabotage – conviction. You need to be sure of what you want. Change your mindset from ‘I’d really like to squat twice my bodyweight’ to ‘I will squat twice my bodyweight’.

Once you have a goal in mind, let it percolate awhile. Give it time to mature and make sure it’s something you want. Not something you kinda want.

Only when you’re certain – clear a path. Begin planning. Most know what to include in a plan but are afraid to trim the fat. Remove everything that blocks you from reaching your goal or is not necessary.

This is where most fall away. Why do you have calf raises in your program? Will that benefit your squat? No? Then scrap it. You can worry about developing the girth of your lower leg some other time.

Now that your goal is concrete and your plan is without deviation – there is one thing to do.

Act.

Start doing whatever it is you need to do to pull this thing off. Every now and again review your progress and make subtle shifts, if necessary.

Conviction + planning + acting = [insert goal here]

Make it happen.

Embrace The Grind

I admire a good garden.

My Nonna has a vegetable patch overflowing with cucumbers, zucchinis and onions the size of melons. One day I lent a hand and it left me pondering life and accomplishment more than I would have expected from a day in the dirt.

It was a summer morning but it started off as overcast and cool. I considered a light jumper but decided against it after checking the forecast.

Before we could get to work, Nonna had to show me her trophies. Although her tomatoes weren’t living up to her lofty expectations, this season’s cucumbers were the size of a lumberjack’s forearm.

She began to outline the day’s plan after the victory lap. Weeding and tilling was on the menu so new seeds could be sewn.

We began to work away. The clouds cleared a path for the sun and a pleasant warmth followed.

A few hours later we were finished. We sat on the back steps of the old house that overlooked the refreshed garden. Nonna commented how happy she was with our efforts as we ate an odd but satisfying snack of cucumber and pineapple.

The garden did look good – vibrant, healthy and productive. I realised the vegetables were the end product of hours and hours of hard work. The work-to-reward ratio is a disproportionate one.

It’s so skewed that it’s a wonder any of us are willing to put in the effort to create anything of substance. The effort for some outcomes is irrational.

There’s the chef who puts thousands of hours into developing her culinary skills for people enjoy her food. The occasional thank you and a good magazine review make her efforts worthwhile.

Maybe it is irrational. But what’s the alternative? Leading a life of mediocrity.

Don’t let work dishearten you from doing something meaningful.

Building The Perfect Back Squat

Building an enviable back squat is hard work.

I’ve set myself the challenge of squatting 200kg. Nothing huge or fancy, but a target. While progress has been steady, I’ve been dissatisfied with my form.  When the bar gets heavy, I would excuse you if you thought I was doing good mornings.

The medical term is Goodmorningitis, and it’s s become an epidemic. But you won’t read about it. The authorities are keeping Goodmorningitis on the low-down – to stop panic enveloping the strength world.

I stumbled upon an article by Yasha Kahn, with good fortune.

Kahn explores the disease and offers remedies too. The author suggests the main thing that causes Goodmorningitis is an imbalance. An over-use of strong back muscles due to weak leg muscles, to be specific. But this is not the case for everyone with this unfortunate condition.

Etiology

Goodmorningitis can be driven by faulty movement patterns. I have watched many people with chunky, muscular and strong thighs succumb to this disease.

If strength is not the concern, the issue lies in leg muscle recruitment. If the quads don’t work through the entire range of the squat it leads to a change in posture. The change favours the lower back muscles, to provide an extra kick, as the body’s sole aim is to get the weight up.

Remedy

Fortunately, Goodmorningitis isn’t fatal.

Below are a few cures. Share them, I beg you if I don’t make it…

Front squats

Front squats are the turmeric of the strength world. With so many benefits you’d be a fool not to front squat.

In the case of curing Goodmorningitis, the front squat:

  • Forces you to stay upright
  • Demands more from the quads by moving the centre of mass toward the toes
  • Limits your ability to fault into a good morning as the barbell will fall forward from the shoulders

Prompts

Keeping these cues in mind can keep your squat form on track:

  • Open the hips – Not the knees. Think about ‘opening up’ from the pelvis
  • Vertical bar path – Visualise the bar travelling in a straight line. This unrealistic but keeping it in mind will stop you from pitching forward
  • Control the descent – Too fast and you lose shape. Too slow and you can’t spring out of the hole. Find a middle ground between the two. A good descent forms the launchpad of the back squat

Sweat on poor form

Be critical of your form. Don’t let a good morningesque squat infiltrate your sets. If you begin to notice your body tilting forward or any other classic sign or symptom of you-know-what – stop immediately.

Continuing to squat when your form is dodgy reinforces a poor movement pattern. Then, it becomes harder to override. Instead, take a longer rest between sets and retry your previous effort. If you’re still not proud of your technique, drop the load until your form is pristine.

Conclusion

Let’s stop Goodmorningitis before it spreads any further. Read Yasha Kahn’s article for help too.

Godspeed my friends.

Zen Body-Being by Peter Ralston

An ‘enlightened approach to physical skill, grace and power’. Zen Body-Being proposes a unique way to improved performance.

Written by world champion martial artist, Peter Ralston, the book covers his personal discovery of techniques and practices to improve mental control, body awareness and alignment.

Ralston’s strategies are influenced by Buddhist philosophies. The Zen aroma permeates through the writing style of the book too.

Lessons

Realistic mental training

The concept of mental rehearsal is growing in popularity – picture yourself succeeding often enough and victory will follow.

The author is a big believer in mental training but believes most have it wrong. There is a perception that, when creating a mental picture, everything should flow perfectly. Ralston stresses a realistic approach. Aim to create an environment in your mind that emulates reality. The carry over to the ‘real thing’ will be greater.

When training, pay close attention to every detail. That way you can imitate the experience in your mind. If you’re trying to improve your forehand, take note of the trajectory of the ball, your body position and the feel of the racket in your hand.

Centre of mass

The point of the body representing the mean position of weight – the central point of the body.

You hold your centre of mass too close to your head. A top-heavy athlete is an ineffective athlete. Without good balance, speed, power and strength suffer.

Your true centre is found two finger widths below your belly button. The Chinese have known about the ‘dan tien‘, the central qi (chee) point, for thousands of years. Keep this in mind when you train. You’ll feel grounded, stable and powerful.

Mundane mastery

Body awareness is a central pillar of Ralston’s philosophy. By knowing where your body parts are relative to each other, plus where your body is relative to the environment, you’ll move better.

Focusing on your body during complicated movements is not easy. Try to maintain a perfect foot arch while deadlifting 250kg! Instead, what if you used mundane jobs – like the washing the dishes or sweeping the floor – to practice body awareness? You don’t need to put much thought into the task itself so pay attention to your body instead.

Strength of the book

Zen Body-Being brings concepts from the East to the West.

The Western approach to better performance is evidence-based. What does the research say? This method has its strong points but it fails to capture things that aren’t so easy to measured.

Ralston shows that the East has much to offer too. It allows you to see things from a different viewpoint and consider things outside of raw data.

Weakness of the book

The book doesn’t provide enough ways to apply its concepts. Was this the aim – to align with the Buddhist vibe so you have to work it out for yourself? Or a failure of the author to distil his ideas into exercises you can work on?

Rating

If you’ve pillaged the net and books alike for ways to improve your performance though remain hungry for knowledge, Zen Body-Being offers a tasty morsel or two. For the majority, I wouldn’t recommend this book – it’s too ambiguous for my liking.

5/10 Buddhist monks.

 

Deficiency Versus Malabsorption

Lethargy, loss of appetite and sleep disturbances are common symptoms of a nutrient or mineral deficiency. A lack of variety in what you eat is a common cause. But don’t jump conclusions without deep thought and investigation.

Everyone has a deficiency – according to the research. Are supplement companies to blame?

“Simply take this pill twice a day for the rest of your life and your problem will be solved!”

Their promise of a quick fix is enticing. But before you go to the chemist, change your diet. Include foods high in the nutrient or mineral that you lack.

Still feeling like a tortoise moving through peanut butter?

You may have an absorption issue. This is where, despite eating well, your body fails to soak up the nutrients and minerals you provide it with.

One cause of impaired absorption is an excess of other things floating around your body. Certain substrates bind to vitamins and minerals, for example. When there is a surplus, nutrients can’t perform their normal role.

Phytic acid, a substance found in bran and seed products, can stop magnesium from working properly. The result can be deficiency-like symptoms.

There are other causes of malabsorption too, like enzyme deficiencies. These help to break down things.

Solution

Forget the shotgun approach. Supplements aren’t the cure-all.  Use the sniper rifle instead. Include your doctor or a dietician. A blood test can reveal where the problem lies with accuracy. Then, you can work on a targeted solution.

Ed Coan – Powerlifter

Don’t let his diminutive stature fool you.

Ed Coan is the greatest powerlifter of all time.

Accomplishments

He has set over 71 world records in four different weight classes. Coan spent most of his time in the 120 kg weight class. And what makes his feats so remarkable is he was able to beat bigger lifters.

Imagine Mayweather pummelling Tyson in his prime, over and over again. This is what Coan has done in powerlifting.

Image result for ed coan

What makes him successful?

A student of the sport

Ed Coan knew he was a talented lifter. Lifting heavy things came naturally to him. Though, in order to move from a great lifter to the best, he had to do more.

He combined his natural abilities with an insatiable appetite to learn. He absorbed knowledge from Ernie Frantz, in his early days, and continued to surround himself with elite lifters over the years.

If you spend time and learn from strong lifters, you will become pretty darn strong too.

Prioritise technique

Coan’s training methods contributed to his success.

He favoured a bodybuilding approach. His muscles grew, giving him a greater capacity to lift heavy weights. And his tendons and the surrounding connective tissue got stronger too and this built resiliency.

The American was big on periodisation – the changing of intensity over a training period. While high-intensity training (lifting close to your maximum) is vital to building strength, it’s also demanding and can lead to overtraining. By training in phases, it gives the body a chance to recuperate.

Most importantly, Coan stresses technique.

Technique. Technique. Technique.

Coan says that a focus on technique allowed him to get the most out of his body. It enabled him to move with near-perfect efficiency, rather than wasting energy.

Play the long game

The sporting greats hang around longer than most. Jack Nicklaus and Roger Federer come to mind. Coan fits the bill too. The nuggety Chicagoan is in his fifties and continues to lift bone-crushing weights.

The message: be patient.

Time under the bar is invaluable. It allows you to groove technique, become a master of your body and break down the mental baggage linked with lifting heavy-ass objects.

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.

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