BOOK REVIEW: Embrace the Suck by Stephen Madden

Embrace the Suck: A Crossfit MemoirEmbrace the Suck: A Crossfit Memoir by Stephen Madden
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Embrace the Suck is one man’s account of his experience with Cross-fit and other high intensity fitness regimens, including SEALFIT 20X. While Madden comes across as a regular Joe, i.e. not one of those crazed individuals who wreck their bodies through lack of rest, failure to heed the body’s warnings, or by way of starvation diets pursued to get that perfect cut, he’s a cheerleader for Cross-fit. If one is looking for an unbiased account of the strengths and weaknesses of Cross-fit, there are probably more objective accounts of the system’s pros and cons. This book is for someone who’s trying to psych themselves up for high intensity interval training. In that regard, the book does a good job because Madden always portrays himself as a human with the unique set of strengths, weaknesses, and limitations that condition entails. He succeeds because he guts it out in the company of the people around him who are portrayed as being more fit (at least in some dimensions) and driven than he.

Still, Madden’s account does give one a taste of the ugly side of the notoriously cult-like fitness system. For example, there is the trainer who refers to orange juice as poison–because it’s a high glycemic index carbohydrate. Even more disturbing is the wife who chastises him upon seeing a photo of him smiling as he crossed the finish line in a marathon–because it showed he hadn’t pushed hard enough. [Come on, it’s not as if, even if he’d died upon crossing the finish line from exhausting all bodily resources, that some Kenyan wouldn’t have been hours ahead of him.] Madden does include a chapter about pain and injuries, but it just suggests one should know what is run-of-the-mill fatigue and what is an actual injury. He mentions an example of a shoulder injury from his own body that he “should probably get checked out.” Furthermore, the final chapter seems to be a cautionary tale about packing too much training into too few days.

The book lays out the Cross-fit approach to exercise, and explains why it is so successful without getting deeply into the research. For those unfamiliar with high intensity interval training (HIIT), the general principle is that one constantly varies one’s workout, and that said workouts are done at maximum intensity with short and regimented rest breaks (though the core workout—i.e. the so-called WOD, workout of the day, is often quite short, i.e. 15 -20 minutes.) The track record for increasing fitness for this approach is good. Studies have indicated that one can get about the same level of cardiovascular benefit as one does from traditional cardiovascular exercise while building muscle (endurance activities like running pursued in isolation tend to result in muscle wastage) and reducing risk of repetitive stress injuries (because one is always changing one’s workout / movement.)

It sounds like there’s no down-side. The workouts are short (granted you may puke, but you’re out the door in an hour or less.) The benefits are high, and it doesn’t seem to be deficient in cardio—the one area in which one might think it would be. The jury is still out on the injury risk. Cross-fit puts out guidelines (which Madden explains) on how frequently one should take a rest day and on the need for perfect form. Those who follow the guidelines may not have any higher risk than other exercisers (the science remains insufficient.) However, the problem may be that it’s hard to maintain the aforementioned perfect form when a trainer is shouting, “faster, faster, faster” in one’s face. Furthermore, moderation and following rest suggestions has apparently not proven the strong suit for many Cross-fitters, some of whom come down with rhabdomyolysis (a deterioration of skeletal muscle from over-exertion / insufficient rest.)

Diet is, of course, an essential topic for any book on fitness, and Madden touches on the two diets that are popular with Cross-fitters. One of the diets, The Zone, is quickly dismissed as being of little use to him because it requires weighing out one’s food portions, and that level of anal retentiveness is beyond his capabilities. The other diet popular in Cross-fit is the one that Madden practices and addresses in the chapter on diet. It’s the so-called Paleo diet—in which one is supposed to eat like one’s pre-agrarian ancestors–except if it involves a high glycemic index food that our ancestors ate, in which case, no. Madden stresses the 80% rule that other Cross-fitter put him on to. That is, follow the diet in a strict way 80% of the time, but allow for a cheat here and there of no more than 20%. Madden’s approach to diet, like his workout drive, seems more moderate and approachable than that of other individuals one sees in the book.

The most fascinating chapter was his description of completing the SEALFIT 20X challenge. This is a one [long] day program in which one trains like a Navy SEAL. It’s part of a fitness and mental toughness conglomeration headed by former-SEAL Mark Divine. This training is a bit different from the Cross-fit workouts in that endurance is a major challenge, and the mind is challenged as much as the body. I don’t just mean that will is important, but the SEALFIT program tests one’s ability to use one’s brain under the pressure of intense physical training.

I’d recommend this book for those interested in learning about the Cross-fit and SEALFIT 20X experience. If one is trying to get an unvarnished view of Cross-fit, you may want to start with another book before getting to this one. It’s readable and thought-provoking.

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BOOK REVIEW: You Are Your Own Gym by Mark Lauren

You Are Your Own Gym: The bible of bodyweight exercisesYou Are Your Own Gym: The bible of bodyweight exercises by Mark Lauren
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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As the title suggests, this is a guide to bodyweight exercises, and—specifically—periodized callisthenic training without equipment. Periodization is an approach in which the volume and intensity of workouts is in constant flux, as opposed to the regular approach that used to be the norm. It’s with regard to coping with a lack of fixed equipment that this book really seeks to separate itself from the many high-intensity interval training (HIIT) books in bookstores today. Obviously, calisthenics require much less equipment than weight training. However, without at least a pull-up bar and dip bars, it’s hard to get a well-rounded bodyweight workout. You Are Your Own Gym shows the exercises done with makeshift apparatus where necessary. Some of the suggested substitutes look safer than others, and a few of them (e.g. door pull-ups) work muscles a little differently than the basic. However, the examples get one into the habit of considering how one can use one’s environment creatively to get a good workout. [I would recommend exercising caution and safety when using the demonstrated improvised methods.] Even if one has access to equipment in day-to-day life, frequent travelers often have trouble getting a good workout in on the road. This book can be helpful in assisting one in avoiding the dead spots in one’s training regimen due to inability to get to a fitness facility.

The author, Mark Lauren, is a former Combat Controller and Special Operations fitness instructor. For readers who aren’t familiar with the US Air Force, Combat Control is one of two special operations career fields in the Air Force (excepting pilots and crew who fly special operators around.) Combat Controllers usually serve with Army Special Forces, facilitating the provision of air support in the midst of combat operations. Lauren certainly has the bona fides to write intelligently on the subject.

The book consists of 12 chapters, but it’s the penultimate and final chapters that present the meat of the work. Chapter 11 presents a thorough collection of bodyweight exercises organized by the area of the body worked. In most cases, the exercise descriptions include a photo, as well as modifications to provide a more or less strenuous version of the exercise. The latter feature makes Lauren’s program nicely scalable. The reader can optimize exercises to his or her needs.

The last chapter lays out the program. Because varying the characteristics of the workout is the key to the periodization approach, varied workout structures are discussed. These include well-known approaches such as interval sets, super sets, and tabatas, as well as less familiar approaches such as stappers (cycling through a fixed number of repetitions of a few exercises for a set amount of time without rest periods—but with a low enough number of reps to avoid failure) and ladders (i.e. long sets in which one does on rep, rests for one, does two reps, rests for two, etc. up to just before the point of failure, and then working back down to one rep in a symmetric manner.) While one can certainly make up one’s own workout with the knowledge gained to this point in the book, there are 10-week sample programs at four different levels (starting with beginners and working toward advanced practitioners of calisthenics.) If you’re not sure which level is right for you, the author provides a set of exercises that one should be able to carry out as a minimum to begin work at a given level.

The first ten chapters deal with a range of subjects including: diet, strength training myths, motivation, intensity, and the nature of bodyweight exercise. These short chapters lay out basic concepts helpful to engage in the program. There are three appendices that discuss equipment issues, a summary of guiding principles, and a discussion of the science of the program. The latter is beneficial, given some claims by the author that old school fitness buffs might find hard to accept–such as the lack of need for high volume endurance activities for cardio (i.e. one doesn’t need go for a run to get cardio benefits.)

I found this book to be beneficial. I like the fact that Lauren addresses the science of the approach rather than just throwing his approach out there with all the fad workouts. I found the advice to be sound, and have become more creative when considering how I can get a good workout on the road as a result of reading the book. As I write this, I’m in the 10th (and final) week of one of the sample workout sequences. I believe I’ve gotten good strength workouts from the program. I enjoy the scalability of the program, and have taken advantage of both easier and harder variants of the exercises.

I’d recommend this book if you’re looking for a bodyweight exercise program—particularly if you travel a lot, don’t have access to fitness facilities, or just like to workout at home.

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