Thursday, 18 December 2008

The Ground of Artes

What is the least you can do each week? What are the most functional exercises? What are the most basic activities you could or should perform? What exercise gives you most bang for your buck?

Such question often flow through my mind. Sometimes I go off route with my training. I devise all manner of routines and am guilty of trying to achieve too much at once.

I am seeing growing evidence of beneficial cross training effects - most recently my handstands have improved without practice. What I had been doing was a lot of kneeling to headstand leg raises which unexpectedly led to my suddenly finding that my handstands moved up a gear. Similarly a lay off from planches earlier this year led to some PBs when I went back to them.

To cut a long story short, I need variety and novelty. I want to be a generalist, but I deep down I want to be a generally good specialist! I keep in mind my paleo compass - so when I do get side-tracked by curling (rarely) or deadlifts (occasional), I can promptly get myself back on course.

To this end I have begun to distill my exercise list down to a handful that I perform at least once every week, and which I supplement with more specialist exercises. Here then are my choice of the most important, fundamental and beneficial exercises.

1) Paleo Exercises
Here is my choice of the four greatest and best and most excellent exercises!

This is THE MOST FUNDAMENTAL, FUNCTIONAL AND IMPORTANT PART OF YOUR TRAINING! It is never 'big beats the small', it is the 'quick that beat the slow'.

In my opinion you should (and indeed must), sprint at least four times a week (on separate days). This might comprise of one or two formal sprinting 'sessions'. For the remainder you might only perform a quick 10s sprint or sprint as part of a game of football or 'chase' with the kids. But make sure you open your after-burners and give it full-throttle with a degree of regularity.

Muscle Up (MU)
There are only a few times in my life where I have sat back and thought "Fuck me!". You know those moments when you just cannot believe what you are seeing. I was taking part in an assault course and there were a few gym rats there. The were big. Very big. Decorated even. The could lift some heavy weights - particularly in the bench press and squat. Could they get over 9ft wall unassisted? Nope. Could they perform several proper pull ups (palms out, from straight arm to 'neck above the bar')? Nope.

If you cannot lift your own body weight with a degree of comfort, it is too heavy or you are too weak (or a combination).The muscle up provides a way or rapidly propelling yourself upwards through trees. It has the advantage or comprising a pull and a push that works most of the muscles in the arms, shoulders and back. You get a gold medal for nailing the muscle up, but if you can only do a pull up and get stuck at the 'transition', close but no cigar!

I would say that one Muscle Up is the benchmark paleo strength test. I rarely do pull ups due to my climbing activities, but I always do muscle ups on a weekly basis. Chins (palms in) don't count for nothing!

I would add rope climbing to this category, as you can also work your pressing strength as long as you reach high up the rope as you climb. In fact you can also 'lock-off' with one arm between each grab. Full marks if you DON'T use your legs - and maintain them in an L-Sit position.

Kill Carry
I am sure there are many of us that have read of the benefits of deadlifting. Lifting a heavy weight from the ground is a fundamental exercise that engages and trains a whole chain of muscles. From a paleo point of view, I can't help thinking that this exercise is a wee bit pointless. I really cannot think of an event where you would be called upon to do this. When was the last time you needed to lift a very heavy weight a few feet off the ground for a few seconds? Sure it targets a load of muscles and if you want a quick workout, it ticks the boxes, but it lacks functionality.

However, think of lifting a big weight and carrying it - I can come up with a few scenarios such as carrying a carcass back to camp, or moving to a new camp.

My favoured position is weight I can carry on my shoulder (I use a heavy duty punch bag). Option B is carrying my youngest around in a papoose but really, an asymmetric shoulder-load has a paleo edge over a Berghaus rucksack - no matter how heavy the rucksack. In fact with a shouldered load, you have to continually use your arms and torso to control the load thus targetting deep core muscles.

No only do Kill Carries target a chain of muscles but can also be adapted for added functionality. Thus you can accentuate speed (move faster) or endurance (go for longer), or add weight for test of strength.

I was going to suggest a 'Press Above Head from Floor' as my final exercise of choice, but in many ways, a well chosen object launched at speed will target much the same muscles - legs, core and shoulders. In addition, throwing has greater utility - think spear-work in an attempt to kill an animal or rock throwing as a form of defence.

My personal choice here is Medicine Ball Throws (MBT), which I perform one arm at a time. For variation I will either chose a heavier medicine ball and concentrate on control of the negative phase of the exercise (catching the ball one handed), or chose a lighter ball and emphasise explosive throwing on the positive phase of the exercise ( again, catching the ball one handed).

I will shoe-horn and One-Arm Snatch from the Floor in to this section as it does fit mechanically in to this section (ish), but MBT feel way more Paleo! Lifting a weight from the floor to an overhead position is the epitome of chain-strength throughout the body. Remember to keep your form with your back straight and driving with the legs.

2) Play Exercises
So having identified THE fundamental paleo exercises, I will now list further exercises which are drawn from the concept of play.

Next summer head down the park. In amongst the free-play you will see amongst the kids, when given an open space and only their imagination to play with and you will witness role-play, chasing games and more importantly cartwheels, handstands and back bridges (unless you are in an Australian school). Of these exercises handstands and backbridges really interest me as they offer rich functionality to our bodies.

Where do I start with these? They really work your shoulders. With practice you can hold them still and work your core. Or, walk around on your hands and feel the hit on the complete shoulder girdle. With time you should be able to perform a handstand press up (HSPU) which will give you an almost complete upper body workout.

Handstands and their associated variations epitomise philosophy and value of bodyweight exercising without any equipment (event he pull up needs a bar!). In two words, handstands are 'The Daddy'.

What I mean here is a Back Limber and a Front Limber. Limbers work your core and encourage spinal flexibility. I see so many kids doing these kinds of moves at my park last summer it really made me determined to re-master such a skill.

There are variations such as 'Kneel Backs' (where you lie on the ground with your knees touching and your toes pointing behind you. Your feet/heels should be outside of your buttocks. Now lean back. You should feel a warm stretching sensation along your thighs. You should be able to lean all the way back so your back comfortably rests on the floor.)

Other variations are standard back bridges which can be made easier by having your feet on a platform. Once happy with this position, you can then do Wall Walks where you back bridge with your hands close to a wall and then walk your hands up the wall until you are standing upright. You can also reverse this latter move.

Experts can go on to perform a 'limber'. Get yourself to for further details.

3) Other Exercises
One of the keys to paleo living is to develop strength through a more general paleo-centric behaviours. For me, three activities stand out.

Climbing is highly specialised now, but with its general development of upper body strength I would sincerely recommend it to anyone as an integrated way of developing strength in the back arms and shoulders. Climbing would have been a fundamental skill on the plains of Africa.

A tree would have provided an optimal defensive position amongst other apex killers! You certainly wouldn't have tried to out run a lion and a spear is useless against a pack animal, particularly if you are on the ground. Much better to head upwards...!

Martial Arts
I personally think that combat would have been a familiar ingredient in paleo life. Fighting for women, territory and resources (has anything changed?). Both striking arts and wrestling (including things like Judo) will fit the mould.

Training, particularly with arts like kickboxing, involve intense shorts bursts of activity followed by rest. This is a classic paleo activity profile and one that should filter through in to your training mentality.

One minute front-kicking a kick-shield will break you, especially when your pad-man starts walking towards you! If you ever get the chance to train with a boxer, you will truly see what fatigue means. The fighting arts can milk every part of your body.

Gymnastics: The Planche and the Lever
The planche and lever are totally UN-PALEO. I cannot possible shoe-horn them in to the paleo-training model. But if there were two exercises that I would advise anyone to perform other than the four at the top of this post, these would be them.

The planch and lever engage just about every muscle in the body. They both offer several progressions and variations meaning they are two exercises from which you can make continual gains. You can even integrate them with the exercises above (planche to handstand or Muscle Up to a ring routine involving levers).

So there you go. These are my paleo staples. If you do the paleo and play exercises at least once a week, you will indeed develop your paleo-athletic qualities. The 'other sports' I suggest will similarly develop your athleticism. Any comments, thoughts and insults will be gratefully received.

I hope to post up some routine ideas in the new year and show how I integrate these ideas/concepts in to my training.

I should point out that I will undoubtedly fall off the paleo cart over the coming weeks. In fact the cart will be rolled on its roof and torched! However, on Christmas Day I will go for a paleo-dip in the Irish Sea (no wetsuit). And, I will try to get out and perform one or two sprints, planches and a few handstands.

I am happy to kick back a bit as I know it will refresh my hunger for 2009!

Merry Xmas and Happy New Year to one and all!



TrailGrrl said...

Good ideas! I think it's very easy to forget about the need to play. When we were kids no one had to tell us to run as fast as we could until we were out of breath. We climbed trees and swingsets and fences and ran away from the crazy neighbor's dogs. Played army and baseball and football and other games that we made up. We went exploring and sled riding, and jumped over the ditches at construction sites.

Sure you need to work hard to keep your body in shape as an adult, but it seems we've all forgotten how to just plain have fun doing it.

I could never go back to a regular gym-style workout after doing tire flipping and medicine balls. It's normal to want to THROW something. I see these places with a bunch of cardio theater and I'm just like "whatever" thinking it's a waste of time.

Watch the movie "The Last of the Mohicans" and get your primal on! When they aren't hunting hard or fighting, they are playing games or kicking back.


Asclepius said...

Your list of activities is pretty similar to what I was doing as a kid in Nottingham! Certainly the bit about being chased by crazy neighbours!

Just look at those nature programs on TV and you can see that the young play extensively to hone there skills. These skills are based upon essentially adult behaviours - the ability to hunt and fight.

There is an obvious progression from the movements of play in youth and the 'serious' movements exhibited by the animal in adulthood. When I take my kids down the park I try to follow their lead rather than the other way around!

Most of us have broken this link. Our childhood play does not reflect how we keep fit and challenge ourselves as adults.

Although my list is heavily Paleo influenced I totally support the concept of play and have blogged about this before. For me play is Paleo activity for the young.

There is definitely a play kick-back from stuff like tire flipping and I would certainly give such an activity a thumbs up! The very thought brings a smile to my face - perhaps the ulitmate definition of play.

How anyone could chose a running machine over 'real running' is beyond me? How can anyone chose road running over some intermittent trail run (with sprinting, log jumps and tree climbing)?

I think that because running on the road or treadmill is seen as a 'distilled'/refined version of a fitness actvity, it is assumed that the goodness has been distilled with it and so it is pure and better. But the fact that they have to amuse people with video screens and iPods tells you a lot. The gym is stagnant and sterile.

No one does an assault course wearing a Walkman. That is because you need your wits about you and you have to maintain focus due to the novelty and challenge continually present.

The parallels between refined exsercise and the refining of wholegrains is unsettling.

TrailGrrl said...

I hadn't thought of the concept of "refined exercise" but I like it!

Trail running is my favorite thing to do, as my name suggests. I think that for women at least, trail running is a perceived safety issue. We feel safer in a controlled environment,and an innate fear of the wild where you could simply disappear. There are trails as part of a park in our neighborhood so these are the ones I do by myself all the time. It is a little weird in summer when it is completely overgrown yet you can still hear someone's radio playing and lawn mowers. The great thing is being outside and really being there, not with an iPod. I can't believe people even ride bikes on the road with headphones on! In any park I will look for the trail or gravel access road to run on. If there's a line of dirt, I think I have to follow it. I actually get annoyed when I go to the trail and there are other people... I like the solitude of having it all to myself. I love using Vibram Five Fingers and gripping the trail. You run so differently than in regular shoes. The aren't any good in rocky areas though. No timing or watches or iPods or "cardio theater."

I will wear my iPod at an indoor track at the university when it gets ungodly cold in the winter. I don't know if it's boredom or to shut the other people out and pretend I have it all to myself like I do the woods.

I am going to try climbing this upcoming year as I've always thought it looked fun. I'm pretty short, so climbing is an everyday activity for me in the kitchen and at grocery store, so I oughta be good at it in theory.

Once I discovered that I could have fun and not be "in training" for any events, there was an incredible sense of freedom.


Methuselah - Pay Now Live Later said...

Really enjoyed this post. Having just constructed a sandbag by painstakingly quadruple-bagging 40 1 lb portions of sand, I am ready for some throwing action!

I do think that jumping belongs firmly in the list of paleo activities along with climbing, sprinting etc. I imagine that very often it was necessary for jumping to initiate climbing to get a handhold on the lower branches before a climb and also as part of flight or pursuit on challenging ground.

I continue to be challenged by the muscle up. I am lean and can do 19 chins from fresh and 10 pull-ups from fresh, yet appear a long way from being able to do a muscle-up on a pull-up bar. Is it any easier with gym rings? I am thinking of getting some, as you know....

Asclepius said...

TrailGrrl - I used to take some gym rings in to the local woods and set them up in the trees (I kid you not). I would do mini circuits of running and then ring-work.

Training on my own in the woods felt odd at first and I used to get curious looks from the odd dog-walker - but I never felt unsafe as I figured that any would-be attacker would perceive ME as being 'nutter'!

Good luck with the climbing. Most of the best climbers are actually short (check out legends like Johnny Dawes and Steve McClure). They have a naturally optimal strength to weight ratio. Climbing is an easy way of mixing with 'perceived danger'. It feels way riskier than it actually is, but will give you that 'paleo fear fix' often missing from modern life!

Asclepius said...

Methuselah, jumping is definitely a must-do exercise and I am a big fan (as you know).

I was going to put in as a separate entry but wanted to keep it short (although I failed to do that).

Rightly or wrongly my rationale was that I think that explosive leg work is implicit within sprinting (and also jumping obstacles like streams), martial arts (leading front-leg push-kicks in Kickboxing utilise a big hop and a stamping motion) and also in climbing (when performing a 'dyno' for a hold).

Now none of these are comparable to a two footed vertical jump, but I reckon that you are more likely to include some tacit 'jumpy' type move in a workout (via those activities above) than you would a throwing move in an upperbody workout. So I figured I needed to be more explicit with things like throwing....and given the importance of our hands and our ability to manipulate (throwing) weapons, I figured this was something I need to give special emphasis. In hindsight, I might well have given jumping a bit more emphasis....!

I have written up a matrix of choice upper and lower body exercises that include jumping, bounding and plyometrics which I hope to post in the near future.

As for MuscleUps - they are definitely easier on rings on the pulling phase as you can chin the first part (palms in). But the press/dip is more awkward as you have to steady the rings.

It is not too late to write that letter to Santa!

Methuselah - Pay Now Live Later said...

I can see your rationale. I think I am just a bit jump-happy at the moment because I am enjoying it so much.

I am definately going to get some rings, although not from Santa, as he is already maxed out on other things! However, I have just read this great article on Beast Skills, which tells me pretty much everything I could ever need to know about muscle ups, including how to progress them with a bar.

The challenge for me is going to be finding somewhere to hang the rings. I will be able to use the smith machine frame in the gym, but being a city and flat-dweller, there is limited scope elsewhere. There are a few road signs with potential, although I am not sure what the po-lice will have to say if they see me doing it. It's the sort of thing that ends up on those tacky reality TV shows as examples of the public being idiots!