BOOK REVIEW: Plyometric Anatomy by Derek Hansen

Plyometric AnatomyPlyometric Anatomy by Derek Hansen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book performs two tasks at once. First, it’s a guide to the broad range of plyometric exercises and how they can be conducted safely. Plyometrics take advantage of a phenomenon in which rapidly stretched muscles contract more forcefully and rapidly. However, you may recognize them as exercises involving jumping and other explosive movements that are used to build power. (Power being the ability to generate a force in as short a time as possible. This is in contrast to strength — a measure that’s only concerned with the amount of force generated.) I would go as far as to say the book could be useful for many individuals who don’t need any particular insight into anatomy, but who want to learn to do a wide range of plyometric exercises. (That said, if you are said person, you may want to shop around because you may find the one or two drawings per exercise may not be adequate for your purposes, and you may discover you need more guidance if you’re new to fitness activities.)

Second, the book educates the reader about what musculature is used in each exercise, and differentiates the primary movers from the secondary muscles. The book provides a happy medium useful for coaches and trainers. It doesn’t get bogged down in the anatomical and physiological minutiae, but provides enough information for individuals who want to see what muscles are working without drilling down into depths of great precision.

The book consists of nine chapters. Of these, the first two chapters provide fundamental background information. Chapter one examines how and why plyometric exercises work in a general sense. Chapter two gets into more logistical issues such as what equipment is needed (e.g. hurdles and medicine balls), what surfaces are ideal for practice (no small issue considering the loads generated), and how training progressions should be formulated.

Chapters three through eight are the core of the book. These are the chapters that describe exercises as I mentioned above. The first of these chapters presents foundational exercises. Plyometrics tend to be physically intense and so many individuals will need to build capacity before moving straight into a full-fledged plyometric exercise regime. The next five chapters explore (in order): bilateral lower body exercises, unilateral lower body exercises, upper body exercises, core exercises, and combination exercises (e.g. exercises that combine jumps with sprints or medicine ball throws with jumps and so forth.)

Each of the exercise descriptions consists of five parts: an anatomical drawing showing the action and the musculature involved, a description of how the exercise is safely performed, a text list of the muscles involved (divided into primary and secondary muscles as is the drawing), notes exploring unique considerations for that particular exercise, and variations for those who need to make the exercise more or less challenging.

The last chapter investigates injury prevention and rehabilitation. One learns how to evaluate some of the more high-risk behaviors and misalignments that must be corrected for exercises to be done safely. One also learns how a swimming pool can be used to help athletes rebuild their capacity after an injury, as well as how rehab activities can be done out of the pool.

There are graphics throughout the book. For the most part, these consist of anatomical drawings. These drawings show the body in transparent form so that one can see the muscles involved in each exercise. There is a reference section at the end of the book.

I found this book to be informative and thought-provoking, and I’d recommend it for anyone who is seeking to expand their depth of knowledge about exercise science – particularly coaches, trainers, and teachers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Greatest Ever Boxing Workouts by Gary Todd

Greatest Ever Boxing Workouts - including Mike Tyson, Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather, Roberto DuranGreatest Ever Boxing Workouts – including Mike Tyson, Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather, Roberto Duran by Gary Todd
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This will be a quick review as the book is simple and straightforward in its approach. The author interviewed 30+ boxers, and each chapter corresponds to a boxer. A few of these boxers are household names, e.g. Tyson, Duran, Pacquiao, and Mayweather, but others may or may not be known to those who aren’t fight fanatics.

Each chapter consists of three sections. The first and longest of each is an overview of that boxer’s career, but it’s the other two sections that are most relevant to the book’s title and theme. One of these sections is an interview that asks a series of 14 questions about how the respective boxer organized his training day, and the other is a description of the boxer’s workouts (typically there was more than one workout—i.e. sparring v non-sparring days.)

If you’re a big boxing fan, this book will be interesting to you particularly for some of the insights about the boxers. The author is clearly knowledgeable in that regard. If you are mostly interested in the book from a fitness perspective, and seek to learn about working out for combative sports, it’s of decidedly less value. It still has some fascinating information, but you’ll probably find it tedious and of limited usefulness. The question and answer section elicits answers from one word to a couple of sentences and the workouts are a page each. What is fascinating is how similar the day in the life of a boxer is, and, specifically, how standardized workouts are. What I mostly found intriguing was when someone stuck out as having a different mode of operating. For example, most started their days very early (often going back to sleep after road-work) but a few were clearly night owls. One can also see a little of how approaches have shifted between the earliest fighters and the ones active until recently.

There are plenty of photographs in the book, but they are the only graphics. There isn’t much else by way of ancillary matter. (i.e. there is a section of pictures of the author with various boxers, but that—of course—is primarily of interest to the author.)

In one sense the book is quite limited and tedious, but it’s also interesting to see how thirty different fighters answered the exact same pallet of questions. There is some insight into nutrition, sleep schedules, optimal time for workouts, etc. However, the book doesn’t drill deep.

If you’re a fight fan, fascinated by boxers and their careers, I’d recommend this book. For those who are buying it thinking they’ll get some insight into how to prepare as a boxer, I’d say said insight will be extremely limited. That said, the book isn’t much of a time investment, and so if you can get it cheap you may find it of some benefit.

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What Are Your Thoughts on “Dick Move Mondays” in a Dojo?

Going rogue with attacks

Gone rogue

So, the whole “dick move Mondays” concept may require clarification. First of all, some readers may be saying, “Every day is dick move Monday at our dojo.” However, readers who train at more orthodox schools may be wondering how such an apparently ludicrous idea would even come up. The idea’s origins are the result of seeking a martial art’s correlate to the “bad pass Fridays” that have been instituted in many basketball practices in recent years. On “bad pass Fridays” coaches give players passes that are catchable–but just barely. I’ll get into the scientific argument for this kind of training below, but for now suffice it to say that the idea is to have regularly scheduled instances in which the individual is taxed to his or her limits and forced to try to cope with worst case scenarios. While there needs to be some limitations for safety’s sake, I’ll argue that there’s some advantage to applying this concept from the sports science and motor learning literature to martial arts training. [Note: if your objective in practicing martial arts has nothing to do with being able to succeed in the context of a sporting match, an actual combat situation, or both (i.e. a situation in which an opponent is trying to clobber you and vice versa) then this isn’t really relevant to you. But feel free to read it any way.]

 

Here’s some low-down on the science. Historically, it’s been popular to teach / coach sports (and non-sport martial arts) using a “partial and blocked” approach. This method is extremely popular because: a.) it’s simple to organize and conduct practice sessions, b.) short-term growth is rapidly visible, and c.) it looks neat and tidy. “Partial” means that a particular skill (or even sub-skill) is extracted from the overall skill set of the activity at hand and practiced in isolation. This could be a throw, a strike, or a means of receiving or defending. “Blocked” practice means that one skill or sub-skill is practiced over and over again under the exact same conditions until it’s deemed time to move onto the next. “Whole and random” practice represents the opposites of “partial and blocked.” “Random” means that one drills a skill under an ever-changing situational context (e.g. one may still be drilling hip throws repetitively, but not against a static partner who’s standing in the same place–there’s movement and pushing and pulling, and possibly a few dick moves.) “Whole” practice simulates the actual event that one is practicing for–whether it’s a Muay Thai match or a parking deck brawl.

 

For a good explanation of the problems associated with blocked practice, watch the video by Trevor Ragan of “Train Ugly” that’s linked below. (fyi: “Train Ugly” is an apropos name for an approach that involves more “whole and random” practice because there will be more short-term failure and one won’t look masterful at what one is doing by the end of a practice session. However, long-term skill retention and the ability to integrate those skills and sub-skills into a more realistic environment is higher.)

As Ragan points out, the random approach requires one read the situation and environment and respond in a way that won’t leave one worse off. (I don’t like the word “planning” applied to martial arts because there’s never time to do any planning in the sense of using one’s conscious mind. However, I’d say reading is a very apropos concept, and there is a need to adjust to one’s context.)

So what would “whole and random” training look like in a martial art? First of all, one should realize that one doesn’t need to make every training session “whole and random” from the very beginning. In the beginning a lot of “partial and / or blocked” practice is necessary. The problem is that if one doesn’t ever move beyond that, one’s performance will be hindered. Second, all practice doesn’t have to be both whole and random; one can spend a lot of time with random drilling of a particular skill. One can drill a particular skill while moving around freely, applying counters, making timing more random, and making the approach less regimented. “Whole and random” practice in the martial arts involve sparring or randori. Jigoro Kano did a brilliant thing in making the techniques and practice environment safe enough that randori (free form) training became possible. For many years, I would have said that Kano Sensei made a system that was less “realistic” by paring out the dangerous elements of jujutsu. However, today I don’t see it that way. I’ve come to realize that the ability to train randori keiko actually added back in a great deal of realism. Who’s to say what the net effect on realism is. I certainly see the advantage over the old way in which one trained in a regimented fashion devoid free form components for years and then one day one went out on musha shugyō (warrior’s errantry) and may be the day you learned of a deficiency in your technique was the day you died.

So “dick move Mondays” is really a way to add randomness into training. One can’t ignore the reading portion of the attack because one never knows what whacky ass attack one’s opponent is going to come up with.

If you do implement “dick move Mondays” in your school or gym, you may want to review this instructional video by Master Ken because the “bitch slap” is sure to enter into your training.

[Disclaimer: Master Ken video included as farce. Readers are advised not perform any techniques suggested by Master Ken or his Amer-i-do-te practitioners.]

The 4% Rule, Yerkes-Dodson, and Finding the Sweet Spot in Martial Arts Training

I was watching one of Michio Kaku’s Big Think videos recently that addressed American science education. The question of interest was how America continues to do so well in science and technology given that the American (primary and secondary) educational system isn’t up to par in science and mathematics with its technological competitors. The bulk of his talk (re: the H-1B visa and importation of brain power) isn’t germane to this post. It’s Kaku’s mention of a second secret weapon that caught my attention, and that’s how America is able to do a better job than many of its competitors in identifying and nurturing top talent. While math and science education is better in many Asian countries, those countries (e.g. Japan, Korea, or China) don’t excel at skimming off the cream of the crop. Dr. Kaku explains that this is because Confucian values teach students to conform, and students are loathe to stand out–even for exceptional performance. Even if a student wanted to show their talent in hopes of having it fostered, the large classes, lecture-centric teaching, and testing of memorization and standardized processes doesn’t offer much opportunity to grow one’s individual strengths.

 

Kaku’s statement resonated with me because I’ve been thinking about the pros and cons of traditional approaches to martial arts instruction. I’m particularly interested in the gulf between the traditional approach and what martial arts teaching would look like if one took advantage of the wealth of scientific knowledge about mind and body development. Most of the martial arts instruction I’ve received over the years is consistent with Confucian thinking. All the students are doing the same practice (or faking it to the best of each’s abilities if it’s beyond one’s current capacities), and each is trying to closely emulate the teacher-presented ideal as much as possible. There’s not much consideration of the individual student’s weaknesses or strengths. Emphasis is on trying to convey as high-fidelity a replica of the techniques that have been handed down through the ages. (While this may be a laudable goal, I’ll later offer explanations as to why I think it’s both death for retention of students and ultimately counterproductive.)

 

Let me first say that there are a number of advantages to the traditional approach to martial arts instruction. First, it’s easy to teach many students at once. This was probably a huge advantage when there were armies of men having to learn these skills. Second, [theoretically] it helps students reduce their egotism through discipline and conformity. The highly hierarchical nature of this approach means students spend years in a lowly position, with the hope that some humility may stick. (NOTE: I’m not certain that this works out in practice.) Third, it creates a disciplined learning environment that is conducive to helping a student keep his or her head in the game.

 

What the traditional approach isn’t so good at is producing students who all perform at the best of their abilities. I suspect that the traditional approach doesn’t do so well for student retention either. It’s a system in which new students are forced to drink through the fire-hose; while students who’ve been around for a while often feel like they’re stagnating.  As I’ll get to below, there’s good reason to believe that a proper match between the challenge of a task and the performer’s skill level is critical to creating an intrinsically rewarding activity and to helping students perform at their best.

 

My thoughts on this topic have been heavily influenced by learning and teaching yoga. While one’s vision of a yoga class may be rows of students doing the exact same posture (and huge classes and / or poor instructors may result in that condition),  but there’s often a degree of variation in a class. This variation results from two concepts that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately, namely modifications and capacity building.

 

Modifications are a two-way street. If the task at hand is beyond the student’s current abilities, he or she may be given an easier variant that allows him or her to work toward the fundamental form. On the other hand, if the task of the moment is old hat, a student might be offered a more challenging version on occasion. I’m not suggesting that one shouldn’t drill the basics throughout one’s martial arts career. Repetition of fundamentals is key to drilling them down into one’s nervous system. However, the brain loves novelty and hates drudgery, and it will become harder and harder to remain engaged if the overall challenge level doesn’t rise. The science suggests that one needs to keep upping one’s game if one wants to perform at one’s best.

 

The nature of modifications in martial arts may not seem as clear as it is with respect to yoga postures. For randori, sparring, and other free-form training, it’s easy to envision how one can adapt the practice to reduce or increase the challenge to a level more apropos of the student’s skill level. One can practice a restricted form. For example, one may work only on sparring with boxing rules to kicks or grappling out of the equation until a student builds up his or her confidence and abilities with recognizing and responding to punches. Alternatively, an advanced student might be presented with armed or multiple attackers. There are some practices, such as specific techniques, for which modifications may not be an option, but that doesn’t necessarily let a teacher off the hook for helping a student who’s challenged by the technique. That may be where capacity building exercises come into play.

 

Capacity building goes beyond offering an easier modification to suggesting exercises to help the student build the physical capacity to do the technique repetitively WITHOUT INJURY. I emphasized those last two words for a reason. In some martial arts, the need for capacity building exercises maybe clear because of the acrobatic insanity involved. However, practitioners of more pragmatic martial arts may say, “We don’t do all those fancy spinning back kicks, so we don’t need capacity building. Anybody can do our techniques because they’re simple and direct.” Maybe that’s true, but if multiple members of your school have the same (or similar) repetitive stress injuries, it’s not true at all.

 

What kind of capacity building are we talking about?  If the technique involves jumping or leaping and the individual is gravitationally-challenged, then plyometrics might be the prescription. On the other hand, if the problem is the inability of the student’s joints to withstand the technique, there might be need for exercises that build up stabilizing muscles, help him / her to cut weight, or both. If a student can’t do a throw without risk of injury, maybe that individual needs to spend time practicing with elastic bands or inner tubes or working on their balance.

 

RiseOfSupermanWhat is this 4% rule? I read about it in Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman. As background, there’s a state of mind called “Flow” that’s associated with performing at one’s best. In this state of mind, which some call “the zone” and others probably once called satori or samadhi, one’s concentration on the task at hand is at its greatest, unnecessary features like sense of time and sense of self fall away, one’s inner critic shuts the hell up, and–at least afterwards–there’s a blissful state. Flow can be described as the shutting down of specific elements of the pre-frontal cortex (PFC)–largely involved with the consciousness mind. It can also be defined neuro-chemically by the hormones released (i.e. Serotonin, Endorphins, Dopamine, Anandamide, and Norepinephrine) and neuro-electrically in terms of one’s brainwaves (around 8 Hz.)

 

There are conditions that favor achievement of Flow, notably: 1.) clear goals, 2.) immediate feedback, and 3.) a good match between the level of the challenge and the level of one’s skill. Flow is a key factor in why some activities are intrinsically rewarding (whether or not they are rewarding in other ways) and why almost any activity can be intrinsically rewarding if it’s sufficiently challenging relative to one’s abilities. What’s sufficiently challenging? That’s where 4% comes into the picture. While it’s by no means an exact or universal value, it turns out that when a task presents a challenge that is roughly 4% above one’s present skill-level is when this state of mind is most accessible. This is why one may see students drop out if they find the level of challenge stagnant. On the other hand, one may not keep new students either if the challenge is constantly beyond their abilities.

 

How about that Yerkes-Dodson? The two early 20th century scientists for whom the Yerkes-Dodson Law are named discovered that performance increases with arousal (one might do best to think of this as anxiety level rather than the colloquial use of that word) up to a certain point, beyond which performance either levels off or plummets–depending upon the nature of the objective.  The point is that keeping the training environment too sterile has it’s disadvantages. In free-form practices like sparring, a little nerves can be a good thing, but being overwhelmed can be detrimental.

Yerkes-Dodson Curves. Source: Wikipedia

Yerkes-Dodson Curves. Source: Wikipedia

Adjusting one’s instruction to the abilities of one’s students is challenging. Traditionalists may hold that it’s far more important to keep the tradition intact than it is to cater to the individual needs of students.  That is, said teachers may prefer to focus on the aforementioned high-fidelity transmission of the teachings of the lineage. There was a time during which I probably would have echoed that sentiment. However, it increasingly occurs to me that producing the best and most engaged students is the best way to keep a tradition alive.

The Jujutsu Murders, Plus Some Brain Science

Jujutsu

Imagine you’re a detective in Edo Period Japan (1603-1868), and you’re told to investigate a case in which three highly-trained practitioners of one of the most well-respected jujutsu schools have been stabbed to death. Each of the three bodies has only one mark on it–the lethal stab wound. The wound is on the right side of the abdomen in all three cases. There are no signs of a prolonged struggle, despite the fact that each of the three had many years of training and none of the men was an easy victim. The stabbings happened independently, and there were no witnesses to any of the killings. So, who or what killed these three experts in jujutsu?

 

Nobody knows who killed them, but a rigid approach to training contributed to what killed them. As you may have guessed, the killer took advantage of knowledge of the school’s techniques, i.e. their “go-to” defense / counter-attack for a given attack. It’s believed that the attacker held his scabbard overhead in his right hand, and his weapon point forward in a subdued manner in his left. All three of the defenders must have instinctively responded to the feigned downward attack as the killer stabbed upward from below with the unseen blade.

 

It’s a true story. I read this account first in Jeffrey Mann’s When Buddhists Attack. That book offers insight into the question of what drew some of the world’s deadliest warriors (specifically, Japan’s samurai) to one of the world’s most pacifistic religions (i.e. Buddhism–specifically Zen Buddhism.)  Mann cites Trevor Leggett’s Zen and the Ways as the source of the story, and Leggett’s account is slightly more detailed.

 

This story intrigues because it turns the usual cautionary tale on its head. Normally, the moral of the story would be: “drill, drill, drill…”

 

Allow me to drop some brain science. First, there’s no time for the conscious mind to react to a surprise attack. The conscious mind may later believe it was instrumental, but that’s because it put together what happened after the fact and was ignorant of the subconscious actors involved. (If you’re interested in the science of the conscious mind’s stealing credit ex post facto [like a thieving co-worker], I refer you to David Eagleman’s Incognito.)  Second, our evolutionary hardwired response to surprise is extremely swift, but lacks the sophistication to deal with something as challenging as a premeditated attack by a scheming human. Our “fight or flight” mechanism (more properly, the “freeze, flight, fight, or fright” mechanism) can be outsmarted because it was designed to help us survive encounters with predatory animals who were themselves operating at an instinctual level. (If you’re interested in the science of how our fearful reactions sometimes lead us astray when we have to deal with more complex modern-day threats, I refer you to Jeff Wise’s Extreme Fear. Incidentally, if you’re like, “Dude, I don’t have time to read all these books about science and the martial arts, I just need one book on science as it pertains to martial arts,” I just so happen to be writing said book… but you’ll have to wait for it.)

 

So where do the two points of the preceding paragraph leave one?  They leave one with the traditional advice to train responses to a range of attacks into one’s body through intense repetition. Drill defenses and attacks over and over again until the action is habitual. This is what most martial artists spend most of their training effort doing. A martial art gives one a set of pre-established attacks or defenses, and it facilitates drilling them into one’s nervous system.

 

Of course, the astute reader will point out that the three jujutsu practitioners who were killed had done just what was suggested in the preceding paragraph, and not only didn’t it help them but–arguably–it got them killed. I should first point out that the story of the three murder victims shouldn’t be taken as a warning against drilling the fundamentals. As far as their training went, it served them well.  However, there’s a benefit to going beyond the kata approach to martial arts. One would like to be able to achieve a state of mind that once would have been called Zen mind, but–in keeping with our theme of modern science–we’ll call transient hypo-frontality, or just “the flow.” This state of mind is associated with heightened creativity at the speed of instinct. (If you’re interested in the science of how extreme athletes have used the flow to make great breakthroughs in their sports, I’d highly recommend Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman.) Practicing kata won’t help you in this domain, but I believe randori (free-form or sparring practice) can–if the approach is right.