Monday, 27 October 2008

What Follows Will Change Your Workout: After the Rhino Test

My previous post seems to have been well received. I hoped it would highlight certain qualities that I felt were important to a quality workout, and give a vivid handle on what you should and should not be doing to 'leverage' your body's evolutionary capacity to respond to activity. So, having given you 'The Rhino Test', I figured I would expand on some of my other thoughts on exercise.

First a little digression. One of the first points I would like to raise is that of metrics. One thing that most of us are guilty of is trying to apply detailed measure to our workouts. This is fine, to a point. We need to 'see how far we have come' on a particular program. Unfortunately we can get too wrapped up in reps, sets and weights without seeing the bigger picture.

Think back to the Rhino Test and tell me how you would quantify such an activity? You couldn't. Even if you applied measures to one rhino hunt, would they apply to the next one? Yet despite this lack of metrics, I am sure we would both agree that anyone tackling coelodonta antiquitatis would exhibit excellent physical markers of health and would not be lacking in athleticism!

I am not saying that metrics have no place, I just feel that we should not get too hung up on them. In particular, if you feel during a workout that it just is not 'happening' for you, then either sack it completely, or on occasion, simply throw the metrics out the window and go with the flow. Try to 'feel' you way through the workout rather than chasing numbers.

One way to 'feel' your way through a workout is to invoke an element of 'play'.

The Importance of Play
I look at my kids playing and they give me loads of ideas for what exercises I should be doing. Captain Kid (CK), is my chief inspiration (as Flash has only just mastered walking - so her repertoire is currently limited).

Given any open space - either the living room or a field, CK will gladly demonstrate short bursts of sprinting, quick changes of pace and direction, jumping, rolling, tumbling, climbing, back bridges, hopping, handstands (although my handstands are better than hers ;) - at the moment!), and various throwing activities of sticks and stones (particularly near water).

If you were to list the range of exercises you perform in a typical session, would it come anywhere close to CK's list in terms of variety? I know that in my days as a gym rat, my routine wouldn't compare! More importantly, I would say that CK's 'routine' would satisfy the Rhino Test! Not bad for a four year old with no formal knowledge of training.

It is this 'instinctive' play that I find so appealing. Think about those nature programs you see on TV. All the mammals (particularly apex predators), develop their skills and abilities through play. Even your domestic cat and dog will hone hunting instincts in the safety of your house, before tackling mice/postmen.

Play and Intensity
There is tendency to train 'hard' every session. At times it is very difficult to avoid this mentality. I normally train about six times a week. This comprises of two martial arts lessons (that can be physically easy and more skill based, or, intense sparring sessions with heavy pad work), and four mini workouts of about 30 minutes. Two of the mini-workouts are gymnastic-based involving body weight exercises (and the odd dumbell), and two are more climbing oriented.

My broad approach is to have a 'hard day' followed by one or more easy days. The easy day will involve light training or complete rest. I do two or three 'hard days' in a week. I might do a hard gymnastic workout at lunch and follow it with a hard climbing session in the evening. Sometimes these sessions are a day apart. I allow my sessions to 'drift' through the week and alter intensity accordingly.

When I approach a light session, be it during a martial arts, climbing or gymnastic session, I choose to mentally embrace that workout as a session of 'play' as this seems to put a natural brake on my inner gym-rat.

For example, with the gymnastics, I will replace a more 'rigid' exercise like pistols, with something more fun such as hopping over a small obstruction. Alternatively, sprinting might be replaced with a game of 'tag' with the kids. The idea is to substitute some of the exercises for more 'fun' options.

Play and Exercise Selection
This is one of the more revolutionary changes that I have adopted! Given the role of play amongst wildlife in developing primal skills, I believe that you should be able to describe all of the exercises you perform in terms of play. This I will call The Play Test.

When you think about this, it is a natural (and hopefully right), conclusion to make. I mean why wouldn't our inclination to play reflect those skills we require later in life?

Moving my exercise to the outdoors and emphasising climbing, combat and gymnastics was an express route to the 'play' approach. Kids instinctively climb, they play-fight and perform gymnastic activities, relying heavily on body weight (handstands, rolls, back bridges etc....all those things you'll witness as a parent).

I have noted amongst some gym-rats a reluctance to go down the route of body weight routines (BWRs). It is irrelevant whether I think BWRs are better than training with iron, but the thing to remember is that it is all 'resistance' and with gymnastic body weight exercises there is always a harder variation to master!

the 'play test' means that what is 'out' are curls, pec-dec flyes, tricep extensions, lying leg curls (although I do use a heel-hook' when climbing), and other exercises which lack wider utility.

If you want big guns, try pull ups (especially as part of a tree climbing activity). You want big triceps? Well, as a kid I would climb the local football/soccer goal. I would traverse out along the 'cross bar' hanging by my arms and then perform a 'muscle-up' and try to stand up on the crossbar. Muscle ups REALLY work the triceps!

You get the idea. 'Play' builds utility and function.

Play and Skill
Play has a greater emphasis on skill than strength and fitness. The latter follows on from skill as you push your performance. Not all performances have to be 'maximal'!

Again, with gymnastics in particular, there are always harder variations to master and so you can always push your abilities. Conversely you can base a light session on easier variations of an exercise.

So there you go. These are my thoughts on exercise. What you have just read in the last two posts is my framework for how I train currently. I will flesh out the bones in subsequent posts.

A final thought I'd like to leave you with is that 'play' is almost exclusively a body weight activity. I don't think we should limit ourselves to training ONLY with our own body weight, but we should certainly EMPHASISE it. My reason for thinking this way is neatly expressed by Steven Johnson in Emergence,

  • "the essential characteristic of all organic growth - [is] to maintain diversity and balance, the organism must not exceed the norm of its species. Any ecological association eventually reaches the 'climax' stage,' beyond which growth without deterioration is not possible."

Now go play!


Chris said...

Another good post.

Have you ever read Frank Forenich's stuff. His book "Play as if your life depends on it" is excellent.

check out his stuff here too:

Methuselah said...

I am very much on this vibe myself now, not least thanks to your suggestions . It seems like the way forward is a cross between Ross Enamait's scriptless training and the inate play of children. Also that complex training stuff that Chris on Conditioning Research has been posting about really appeals. I hanker for a big garage or garden where I can chuck things around, jump onto things, drag things around etc.

I had this idea for the ultimate mano-a-mano challenge - you each have a 'base' containing 20 sandbags. The bases are 20 yards appart. When the whistle blows you start carrying sandbags and dumping them in the other person's base. The winner is the person who ends up with an empty base. What do you think? Could be a real killer!

Asclepius said...

Methuselah - sounds like an excellent challenge. 'Scriptless' is a good term and describes the direction of my training. I still incorporate some metrics on occasion - they are a 'handle' on fitness, but trying to be a bit more 'freeform' is proving more fruitful than my gym-rat routines ever did!

Chris - thanks for the links. I will check out the book and links.

I think for all of us we want to get to a position of health and fitness where we have the capacity to shift sandbags from A to B, or push the car when it breaks down, climb up on the roof to fix a tile, or run for a bus. We also want to be able to do this well in to our senior years.

As long as we train with an eye on adaptibility and functionality, we will achieve this goal.