10 Easy Pieces of Fitness Wisdom: and Why “Fitness Secrets” are Bullshit

A few weeks ago I did a post entitled, 10 Easy Pieces of Wisdom: and Why “Secret Wisdom” is Bullshit. That article’s premise was that understanding what one needs to do to be wise is simple, but the process of doing it is inescapably arduous–often to the point of seeming Sisyphean. (For those who aren’t brushed up on their Greek Mythology, Sisyphus was the guy who was punished by having to roll a rock up to the top of the hill only to let it roll back down, and the repeating the process ad infinitum.) I’m not saying that it’s a Sisyphean task, just that it can feel that way and one has to press forward through that feeling.


This post has the same premise, but applied to fitness. Fitness and wisdom have more in common than you might first think–they are both about improvement of the self. Unfortunately, the commonality that’s relevant here is that both invite crowds who will try to convince you they have an end-run around hard work. One of my past martial arts teachers, who was also in law enforcement, said that “cons only work on people with larceny in their hearts.” So it is that the con-men that are trying to sell “enhanced formula supplements” or “a 15 minute per week workout” can only sell to the people who want something for nothing. (Clue: what you get for nothing is nothing worth having.)


Without further ado, here are the 10 easy pieces:


1.) Know Thyself. This is a two-parter:

First, don’t let your ego write checks your body can’t cash. Some students want to jet right into the most advanced exercises. That’s like a third grader taking trigonometry; it’s ultimately less than productive. These are the individuals who tear ligaments, and who you don’t see again for six months–if ever. For virtually everyone, advanced exercises–be it a muscle-up or a yogasana like Urdhva Dhanurasana (A wheel pose, chakrasana, that is entered from a standing back bend)–require a lot of time spent in capacity building via fundamental exercises.


I’ll give an example, I saw someone on television yesterday doing the most horrendous single-armed push up. The only thing that kept this individual from damaging himself is that his range of motion was so tiny (he may have still injured himself.) His problem is that he heard that single-arm push-ups were cool, and he wanted to get straight to it. In reality, one needs to build into that exercise starting from a good solid standard push up, and then doing preppers (preparatory exercises) that gradually shift the load onto one arm. But maintaining form as well as one can. For example, putting one hand on a block off to the side, and gradually shifting it out to arm’s length.

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Second, on the other hand, don’t half-ass everything because you mistake discomfort for agony. This confusion cause people to greatly underestimate their capabilities. While you may think your teacher or trainer is a Sadist (only rarely are they are, really), the fact is that they are trying to give you one of the greatest gifts you can ever receive, which is the realization that you are capable of far more than you think you are–if you’re willing to gut it out through the challenging parts.


2.) Diet is the 800 pound gorilla of cutting weight. The simplified mathematics of this that adding exercise (while critically important to fitness) only marginally adds to the calories burned part of the equation. (Believe it or not one burns a lot of one’s calories just through baseline activities–breathing, walking, sleeping, etc.) However, when you cut caloric intake that’s all reduction from the intake side of the equation. However….


3.) Don’t make your goal weight loss, but rather to have a healthy and more functional body. Weight loss tends to be about external validation. That is, one wants to appear more attractive to someone else (or everybody else.) That’s a sucker’s game. People won’t necessarily notice–depending upon how often they see you and how self-absorbed they are. If you shed pounds at a healthy rate, people around you all the time don’t necessarily notice a day-to-day change.


On the other hand, as one starts feeling healthier and develops movement capacity beyond your previous capability, that can’t be taken away by anyone.


4.) When your body has been properly prepared through fundamentals, advanced maneuvers practically fall into place. I was taught a scorpion prepper  just a couple of weeks ago, and was surprised to find it was much easier than expected. I still have a lot of work to do to take it to the full pose. For example, I’m still using a wall so I don’t over-rotate in the arched back position,  but I bring my heels off the wall once I’m up. Next I’ll do away with the wall. Then it will be time to start bending my knees. My point is that  work on back stretches, core strengthening, and headstands made it relatively easy to get into the first stage.



5.) Reveling in small victories can kill progress. The handstand provides a classic example. In the beginning, one starts kicking up against a wall. Even this can be a challenge in the beginning. However, as soon as it becomes doable, one should start gradually taking the training wheels off. This may begin as cautiously as pulling one leg away from the wall at a time. Then do away with the wall altogether. Then the suffering begins anew as one sheds the kick up in favor of a more controlled manner of ascent into the handstand.


6.) Don’t be quantitative.  A journalist once asked Muhammad Ali how many sit-ups he did in his training regimen. Ali said, “I have no idea. I don’t start counting until they start hurting.”

I’ve heard guys pleased with themselves because they do “sets of 100 push-ups.” This is often impressive only until you see the person actually do the exercise, and then–more often than not–you notice that they haven’t actually done one push-up. Rather, they’ve done a whole lot of mild elbow bends from a roughly plank-like position. It’s better to do 10 push-ups with a full-range of motion and controlled ascent and descent than to fool yourself with weak form.


7.) Don’t mindlessly workout. Shun the distraction of headphones, television, or cellphones . If you find working out to be so mind-numbingly boring that you need a distraction, you should re-evaluate the nature of your workouts. You should be “listening” to your body throughout the process. If your goal is to have a greater command over your body and its movement, e.g. you are a martial artist, dancer, yogi, etc., then this is particularly important.


First of all, with respect to boredom, boredom is the product of a weak mind. So you might consider working the mind out as well. Secondly, if you are truly bored, you should be upping your game.


While this may be one of my least popular points in this post, if you don’t believe me, ask Al Kavadlo.


8.) Rest is part of the process. It’s not stepping away from the process. As your body rests, your mind should be alert and taking stock of the effect of the practice on your body. Rest breaks aren’t zone out time. Also, part of having a healthy body is building a healthy parasympathic nervous system and immune system. Your body requires rest to heal, and it can heal and fight off infections tremendously effectively if you provide the right conditions.


9.) Exercises that consist of the motions you will need for your particular life are the most important.  The term “functional fitness” is ubiquitous these days, but I first read this advice in Bruce Lee’s Tao of Jeet Kune DoLee said that actions like punching, kicking, and grappling practice should make up the core of a martial artist’s workout. That doesn’t mean one should do away with general fitness activities. (Lee certainly didn’t.) Martial arts provide a prime example of an activity that requires a well-rounded form of fitness. That is, one needs core strength, good range of motion, cardiovascular endurance, and extremity strength and speed.


10.) Don’t agonize over failures. Move onward and, carefully, upward. If you aren’t (safely) failing to achieve an occasional goal, then you need to kick your way out of that box of comfort zone you’re trapped in.


BOOK REVIEW: Zen in Motion by Neil Claremon

Zen in Motion: Lessons from a Master Archer on Breath, Posture, and the Path of IntuitionZen in Motion: Lessons from a Master Archer on Breath, Posture, and the Path of Intuition by Neil Claremon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

When one thinks of Zen, one thinks of stillness. Sensory and motor deprivation is what scientists call it. But stillness is a favored term among Zen Buddhists. Being someone who is fascinated by movement and activities at the body-mind intersect, this title immediately snagged my attention despite the narrow print on this thin book’s spine. The value of a Zen state of mind in the practice of movement arts is clear and well-established. Zen in Motion recounts the lessons of the author as a student of the Japanese style of mounted archery (kyūdō.) Claremon studied with a Japanese Kyūdō master residing in New Mexico.

It will be clear to many why mounted archers might take allegiance in Zen. Charging down a trail on a horse towards a small, round target, there’s no time for conscious thought in calculating pull and release. Furthermore, there’s stillness in motion (sounds like a koan) that must be maximized because the slightest imperfection in movement can send an arrow astray.

It should be noted that this is neither the first nor the only book written on the nexus of Zen and Kyūdō. (Though it’s the first one I’ve read in full.) Probably the most famous book on the subject is Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery, but there’s also a more recent book by John Stevens, entitled Zen Bow, Zen Arrow that tells the story of Awa Kenzō (who was Herrigel’s teacher.) The logical question is what is the value-added of Claredon’s book. If we have two books by more famous authors on seemingly the same subject, why should one read this one? I believe Claremon carved out a good niche with this book that makes it sufficiently different from the books of those other authors.

What is Claremon’s niche? The body portion of the mind-body equation is at the forefront in this book. Claremon directs most of his energies to topics such as breathing, posture, grounding, walking, and balance. While I haven’t read Herrigel’s book completely, I did skim through it. Zen in the Art of Archery seems to focus more heavily on the mind portion of the equation—i.e. the philosophy / psychology of Zen, if you will. This may make it sound like Claremon’s book isn’t much about Zen, which is widely considered a mental pursuit. However, one must remember that postural alignment and breath are crucial in zazen, and that Kinhin, walking meditation, is a well-established practice in Zen Buddhism. Furthermore, I don’t want to imply that Claremon leaves out the mental piece altogether, just that the balance of the discussion is toward the physical. (Whereas, it seems like the balance of Herrigel’s discussion is in the realm of the mental—but Herrigel gets into physical topics as well.) Having said all that, an argument could be made that a more appropriate title might be “Ki (Chi) in Motion” as the author devotes a great deal of space to discussing life energy (Ki in Japanese or Chi in Chinese.)

Another valuable piece of Claremon’s work is that there is plenty of value to individuals who don’t practice archery, but who are interested in discovering how these lessons might apply to other movement arts. For example, I found the topic of the 10-point “Diamond Being” that is a central concept in the book to be quite thought-provoking. The 10 points that are roughly arranged in a diamond shape (vertical alignment of 3 nodes down the left side of body, 4 nodes down the body’s centerline, and 3 nodes on the right side, and all these nodes connected by edges (line segments)) and map to the human body. While much of what Claremon said about this construct was esoteric and not of much use to the scientific-minded reader (i.e. sending ki between the various nodes), the construct had value in thinking about postural alignment, for example. There is an entire chapter devoted to healing that, of course, has a value to non-archers as well as archers.

Some of the concepts that are mentioned can be thought of in terms of the modern-day construct of “Flow,” which is related to Zen states of mind and which has gained a following among modern practitioners of high-speed / high-risk sports.) For example, the idea of perceiving time at a slower rate, which is an established part of Flow states valued by skiers and skydivers, would be a valuable state of mind for shooting an arrow from a moving horse toward a small target. Another example is discussed on the chapter of the fear of falling. Whatever one calls the mental state, avoiding an adrenaline dump and the fear associated with it is critical.

The only graphics are drawings, but they seem adequate to the task.

I enjoyed this book. For me the book’s greatest weakness was a tendency to be ethereal and esoteric. While the author denied believing in magic, there was a fair amount of explanation that no scientifically-minded person could hang his hat on. To be fair, this may in part be because the science of some of these experience isn’t yet well-established. (I recently watched a clip from a Discovery Channel program called “Human Weapon” in which there were some Chi related activities that the technicians and experts said they couldn’t explain for all of their state-of-the-art equipment.) However, it could also be that false experiences were arrived at by the leading statements of a trusted teacher.

I’d recommend the book particularly for those who have interests in activities at the intersection of body and mind.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Book of Massage by Lucinda Lidell

The Book of Massage: The Complete Step-By-Step Guide to Eastern and Western TechniquesThe Book of Massage: The Complete Step-By-Step Guide to Eastern and Western Techniques by Lucy Lidell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

I picked up this book because I recently began studying Thai Yoga Bodywork (TYB.) While The Book of Massage doesn’t specifically deal with Thai massage, as a neophyte, I figured some general reading was in order, and there aren’t a lot of widely available books that deal with Thai massage specifically (at least not where I currently reside.)My first testimonial of this book is that I looked through over a dozen books on massage at my local bookstore, and this is the one with which I walked home.

I found Lidell’s book to be a valuable resource. The book covers three approaches to massage: oil massage, shiatsu, and reflexology. As the subtitle suggests, this book addresses both Eastern and Western approaches to massage. The section labeled simply “Massage” is one that deals largely in the Western approach, as it’s suggestive of the Swedish style of massage. This involves oil, no / few clothes on the recipient, and a variety of strokes that are delivered over relatively broad areas (as opposed to the deeper acupressure approach of the latter methods.) The oil massage chapter begins with an overview including what type of oil to use and the basic strokes, and then provides a sequence before delving into specific techniques for various body parts or groups of body parts.

Shiatsu is a Japanese form of massage that is based on the concepts of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM.) I found this style to be much closer to what I’ve learned in TYB. Like TYB, both patient and recipient are clothed, there is no oil, acupressure is the norm, it requires no table, and there is a match up between what are called “energy lines” in TYB and “meridians” in Shiatsu. Shiatsu even employs similar stretching techniques to those that are the hallmark of TYB. I can imagine these systems having a common ancestral art.

The order of the shiatsu chapter is basically the same as the chapter on Massage. First, there’s necessary background information. This consists of a couple of pages on the basic Taoist concepts on which TCM is based (e.g. Chi, Yin & Yang, and the five elements) and related vocabulary like “tsubo” (pressure points) and meridians. The section then goes on to address basics of posture and bodily tools (palms, thumbs, elbows, knees, etc.), the sequence of the massage, and then the specifics of various body parts.

Reflexology massages only the feet and hands in the belief that points on these appendages map to other parts of the body. In other words, practitioners believe one can increase wellness throughout the body by working points on only the feet or hands. It’s said that the roots of reflexology may be ancient and that it may have been practiced in Egypt in 2300BC, but the modern school was developed by an American physician in the early 20th century. TYB does borrow from reflexology (though not necessarily the modern form of it), so some of this was also similar to what I learned in TYB. Again, the order of this section went from the generic information one needs toward the specifics of how to apply a given technique on a particular part of the foot or hand.

In addition to the three core sections, there were chapters before and after that provide the reader with useful information. Some of this was banal but obligatory (e.g. a brief history of massage and a discussion of the importance of touch among the human species), but some of it was essential practical information such as how to create the proper environment and how to center oneself before delivering a massage. There was also information that will be useful for some about massages involving babies, expectant mothers, the elderly, athletes, and oneself.

Perhaps the most beneficial of the “supplementary” chapters was one that dealt with the subject of how to read bodies. This may seem like an odd topic. However, it’s useful to be able to recognize where an individual holds his tension or where her posture is off–a problem that can create many muscular difficulties. There’s a short overview of anatomy, which I found useful, and a shorter overview of “chakras and auras,” which I personally didn’t find useful but can see where others might.

There are several strengths and relatively few weaknesses to this book. I found the organization to be logical. The graphics are a combination of photos and line drawings, and they work well together. I thought it was great that the author explained that Shiatsu is to be done in comfortable, loose-fitting clothing and that the only reason the graphics display the masseuse in a skin-tight body suit was so that the baggy clothing wouldn’t inhibit the reader’s view. Also, I found the written descriptions worked well with the graphics. One often needs a written cue as to where to find a certain point or line, and just showing it in a picture can be misleading given the wide variety of body types as well as the granularity of the graphic in contrast to the specificity of a point one may need to hit.

I suppose I should warn the easily mortified and / or very religious that there are full and partial frontal nude photographs in the section on oil massage. [I doubt such people are a major demographic for giving or receiving massage, but one never knows.]

I don’t have a lot of complaints. As it’s set up like a workbook, a spiral binding might have been nice, but I recognize the huge challenges of that. Plus, I’m not certain that one can or should learn massage from a book. Rather one should look at it as information to support study with a skilled teacher–or to experiment with once one has already developed some skill. The sections early and late in the book that talk about the importance of human touch didn’t add much, but they were also brief.

If you’re looking for a book on massage that covers a broad set of bases, but yet gives adequate detail for learning, I think this book is a good choice. I’d say it piqued my interest in learning Shiatsu.

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