Friday, June 21, 2013

Essential Skill: Defend Yourself

Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.
- Gen. James Mattis USMC(ret.)
I started off with a rather aggressive quote but my ultimate goal with this post is to help you avoid getting hurt by someone acting aggressively towards you. Gen Mattis' quote above is from the perspective of a warfighter, but I think it applies to the realm of self-defense in everyday situations as well. We don't generally live in a hostile environment with bodily threats happening in a normal day. We do have a rather thin veneer of civilization though and people tend to behave poorly in times of turmoil. You should not underestimate the speed at which a seemingly peaceful area or situation can turn ugly and have a plan to avoid harm to you and your companions.

MCDP-1 Warfighting publication that guides the overall philosophy of the Marine Corps. Replace the word "war" in the pub with "life" and you'll find this to be an excellent guide for the civilian world as well. MCDP-1 is not about specific tactics, techniques or weapons--it is about mindset. I had an instructor tell me to look at the world through a lens of MCDP-1 and that message stuck with me. Self-defense is also first about mindset. Here are some of my suggestions on how to cultivate self-defense into your daily physical training:

Be a hard target
First of all, be aware of your surroundings and avoid situations that are dangerous. Whatever your training level, don't foolishly spoil for a fight. If you look for a fight, you'll probably find one with someone meaner, tougher or more skilled in fighting than you.
She has confident posture; not sure the clothing is practical though.
Walk confidently with your head up and shoulders back. Look around as you walk. Make eye contact with people. Move quickly and decisively. Project a body language that you belong and that you are comfortable in your own skin. Staring at the ground as you walk, crossing your arms in font, hunching your shoulders or being immersed in your phone all highlight you as an easier target.

Wear practical clothing that doesn't restrict your ability to walk easily, run briefly, jump or climb. Bring along more stylish shoes or clothing to wear when you get to your destination if necessary.

Defuse the situation
Be cool to defuse a situation
Keep your distance and don't be threatening in response to a perceived attacker. If someone is verbally aggressive, a response in kind will likely escalate the situation to a physical confrontation. Be polite and calm in the face of hostility. Keep moving away from the situation steadily.

If you become trapped in a confrontation, abandon property to the attacker without hesitation. Stealing from you may not be the ultimate goal of an attacker but give them any property they may ask for. At the least, it could distract the attacker and give you an opening to flee. Never comply with going to another location with them though--relocation never works out for the victim.

Practice for physical confrontation
Drill punches, elbow & knee strikes and kicks in your physical conditioning program.  Work to be quicker, stronger, and more precise in all your movements. Where you hit someone is more important that how hard you can hit someone. Take courses on grappling, striking and general self-defense to develop skills but more importantly, help develop more self-confidence thus making you a harder target. Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ)JudoMuay ThaiKrav Maga are all practical combative disciplines. My limited background with fight training is in wrestling and ground fighting techniques based on BJJ while in the Marine Corps.
Practice techniques that are designed for real-world situations
You don't ever want to fight for real but if you can't avoid the physical confrontation, you have to work on fighting skills. Fight training is hard but it's also fun and empowering. It's a total body experience where physical & mental weakness quickly manifest. Embrace your fear. Bravery is acting in spite of fear and it's an acquirable skill with practice.

Respond ferociously
Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.
- Isaac Asimov, Foundation
While the mongoose is really the aggressor towards the cobra, channel its ferocious spirit when necessary
The Constitution specifically mentions our individual right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. You don't have to be a victim and there should be no moral dilemma to hurting someone who wishes to hurt you. If attacked, respond quickly, explosively and violently while working to get away as soon as possible.  You did not create the situation and it is your right to defend yourself.

You can't rely on the police or anyone else to respond quick enough to keep you from getting hurt. Channel the spirit of a caged monkey and react ferociously. Strike weak parts on your attacker hard and often. Withdraw just as decisively and aggressively. Return to your hard target posture as quickly as possible and calm your mind.
You chose to be a victim if you don't seek out ways to avoid being one.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

La Méthode Naturelle

 Être fort pour être utile (Being strong to be useful)
- Georges Hébert
Contrary to what Nike might tell you, physical fitness training is not a new concept.
Georges Hébert was a French physical education thinker and instructor in the early 20th century.  He was inspired by the seemingly natural physical prowess and physique of indigenous populations. In his mind, these people had no instruction on diet or exercise yet had a superior level of fitness to people living a modern lifestyle. Other thinkers in Hébert's time were proposing physical training concepts and programs prompted by public health and military preparedness. His philosophy strove to mimic the behavior patterns of native people by centering on a return to the basic functioning and enhancement of natural human skills (La Méthode Naturelle). The 10 basic movements in his mind were walking, running, jumping, crawling, climbing, balancing, throwing, lifting, defending and swimming; a standard training session would involve a combination of these elements.
Old school obstacle course training inspired by Georges Hébert
USMC obstacle course training, Parkour, MovNat, Fartlek among others are all modern implementations of La Méthode Naturelle.  Essentially the principle is that learning to master obstacles in the world around you provides all the physical stimulation we need to achieve a fully functioning human body.  Individual components of fitness like strength, endurance, or flexibility are not trained in isolation but as a byproduct of developing useful skills.  Movements aren't scaled for age or sex. There is no end-state fitness goal. You listen to your body and practice everyday striving for greater efficiency in movement. Physique is also a byproduct of focusing on improving movement.
Fit bodies are not just for men
To Hébert, a strong, agile body was a useful body. Doing stuff when and how you want to do something was the purpose of training. Not just pullups for stronger arms but for better climbing ability.  Not just better climbing ability as an end-state but to better scale something for a vantage point or to escape. The underlying purpose of life enhancement permeates all physical training sessions.
Think about what drives you to train your body.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Essential Skill: Walk with Weight

An unfortunate situation to prepare for in today's world
On the morning of September 11, 2001, powered transportation completely stopped in the greater New York City area. Cars, cabs, buses, subways, trains and planes all shut down because of a terrorist event. The images of people walking home from lower Manhattan wearing their work clothes (along with dazed expressions) made an impression on me. We take our transportation for granted--that is until we lose access to it. Americans tend to work in urban centers and commute an average of 16 miles one-way. Are you able to walk that far? What about doing it carrying your work bag? How about carrying your bag and your child?

Walking is a basic movement and one that defines us as a species. We can go places with our feet that are impossible to reach with any other form of transportation. Backpacking in the wilderness connects you to nature in ways that aren't possible with motor vehicles.  The health and social benefits of daily walking are well-known, but being able to walk for a few hours with a moderate load could also save your neck. Evacuations never happen until they happen to you; then it's too late to prepare yourself physically for it. Chemical plant explosions, wildfires, tornadoes, nuclear leaks, gas pipe ruptures, oil spills and terrorist attacks are occurring more often than we would like. While driving to escape these events may be an option, road congestion might make walking to safety the preferred option.
Backpacking with kids and pets can also be a lot of fun
Along with the need to evacuate somewhere, comes a need to take supplies and prized possessions along with you. The American Red Cross recommends that we all have emergency kits prepared for our families with water, food, medicines, blankets, flashlights and a radio among other gear. Combined with a few choice heirlooms and possessions to keep children comforted, a minimal bag might weigh 30 lbs or more. Can you carry this walking at least 10 miles?  I suggest that you give it a try.
The real tragedy is in not preparing for the known knowns.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Form Follows Function

"It is the pervading law of all things...that form ever follows function. This is the law."
- Louis Sullivan
It's understandable that you want to look good in a bathing suit.  I want to look good with my shirt off too.  Jack Lalanne is one of the greatest health and wellness advocates even used standing in front a mirror naked as a better indicator of health than weighing in on a scale.  Striving for a lean body is not pure vanity but also a great way to improve your overall self-esteem and sense of self.

That being said, physique based diet and exercise plans don't necessarily lead to developing a "capable" body--one that can perform a broad range of physical feats.  I argue that a capable person has even greater self-esteem than one who is merely lean and muscular.  Confidence comes from knowing that you can handle life's curve balls and that you can respond to unpredictable situations where a weaker, slower or less nimble person wouldn't be able to avoid tragedy and failure.
Free running is an excellent mix of real world physical skills
Fortunately beauty does not need to be sacrificed for effectiveness and vice versa.  A functionally adept person is very likely shapely and visually pleasing in form.  The reverse is seldom true however.  How many body builders can swim a mile?  How many triathletes are capable of chinning themselves more than 5 times?  How many marathoners could pick up and carry someone their own size?  Some but not many.

I'm with Jack Lalanne in that a fit body should be a shapely one. Don't just focus on bigger arms and a smaller butt though.  Replace isolation weight training movements with compound ones (i.e. pull-ups over bicep curls).  Stand up when you workout versus laying down.  Use your own body weight and awkwardly shaped items for resistance training.  Run, swim and walk with a weight frequently. Working to develop real world physical skills will build an attractive body but more importantly you will acquire physical capabilities that will serve you throughout your life.
Competence leads to confidence.

Friday, June 14, 2013

No Point in Even Trying

Sad but true?
Maybe the Onion was correct in their recent spoof news article. Losing weight, writing a book, breaking up with someone, learning another language, changing careers--all these choices are made more difficult by the inertia of life. Change is hard, intentionally changing yourself is impossible.


We all start out life at the same place as naked, helpless, poor, dumb babies. We immediately start to accumulate experiences, knowledge, & stuff.  We also start developing habits--both good and bad.  Learning to speak and understand our first language seems like a natural process from a position of being an adult who is already fluent but think about how frustrated kids are by their inability to understand or to be understood.  No wonder kids pitch fits all the time; they want something specific but are incapable of getting it! There's nothing easy about developing language skills, but children have no other choice than to struggle through picking up words and phrases little-by-little everyday. They develop the good habit of studying their first language until they can be understood as they would like to be.
He'll be speaking Swahili in no time
Necessity drives kids to try new things. As adults we benefit from the ability to reason and forecast with rational thought.  We can look at our struggles to become fitter and healthier through the lens of a child struggling everyday and see that immediate results are not possible. We can see the reward in the effort itself.  We know that diligent effort over time pays off in the end. We know that babies learn to speak eventually because they work at it everyday and don't let minor setbacks derail their progress.

Changing your life isn't impossible. You have so much more going for you than any helpless, ignorant baby, and they change their lives all the time. Find your internal driving need as babies do. You have to want to do something the way that a baby wants to talk or walk. Commit to a healthy lifestyle and little-by-little you'll get the results you want.
If a helpless, dumb baby can do it so can you.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Essential Skill: Pull Yourself to Safety

Swim to shore or climb back into the boat.  Being fit gives you options
I have a number of modern physical skills in mind that are guiding these Essential Skill posts. So far I've written about carrying your own bag and swimming to shore. Both of these skills require total body movements that task more than a single energy system (i.e. aerobic & anaerobic). Pulling yourself away from harm is a skill in the same vein. Where might this skill come in handy?
  • Climbing a tree, wall or fence to avoid an animal
  • Lowering yourself down a rope to get out of a burning building
  • Pulling yourself out of a river from a hanging branch
  • Getting back into a boat or canoe from the water
I love rope climbing workouts because it's both practical and difficult
Upper body pulling strength will factor in being able to accomplish tasks like these, but they also involve core strength to pull your legs up and the agility to harness assistance from your feet. Women often make better rock climbers than men because they don't rely on upper body strength as much and scramble up a rock face more efficiently using a combination of arms & legs. Same principle applies for the 4 examples I listed above.

This isn't to avoid focusing your training on developing grip and pulling strength. Both women and men should be able to perform a dozen pullups or so. Climbing and lowering yourself down a rope will be much easier with upper body strength to draw on. Merely hanging from a bar, rope, edge of boat, etc. is challenging enough if you don't focus on body weight pulling exercises.
Moving your own body is all the gym you need (
Here are a few excellent moves to practice in your training program to both develop and maintain the ability to pull yourself out of harms way:
  • Pullups
  • Dips
  • Hanging leg lifts
  • Rope climbing
  • Rolling over a high bar
  • Muscle ups
We tend to live up or down to expectations so set high physical standards for yourself.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The President's Fitness Challenge

A great idea that has never really been implemented
What happened to the President's Physical Fitness Test that we used to take as kids in PE class?  I remember struggling through it in elementary and middle school.  We didn't really prepare for the test--it sort of just got sprung on us randomly.  The pullup portion was humiliating to me since I couldn't even do one until I focused on practicing them consistently as a 6th grader.  Having a Marine for an old man provided that not-so-subtle external motivation for me.  I would have disliked it as a kid, but having guided training sessions to the Fitness Test standards would have been so much better for my physical development and sports performance.

Out of curiosity, I looked up the test standards and I'm rather impressed with it.  Covering many aspects of fitness, kids have to really focus their physical activities towards the skills covered to pass their age standard.  There is also a test for adults which is rather easy but could be a fun program to mix into your daily exercise regimen.  I wonder what percentage of kids by age group even attempt the challenge these days and what percentage can meet the age group standards?  Probably not high percentages in either case, but I don't think the numbers for kids when I grew up in the 1980's were much better.
Pullups are a key movement for determining overall fitness
It's odd to me that this program hasn't become a bigger focus for our educational system.  The mind-body connection for learning is well established.  Kids need to get their excess energy out before they can focus on mental tasks (I still have this problem).  We knew as early as the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations that American youth were lagging the physical condition of European counterparts.  The health of boys has been essential to national security since ancient times since they are the future soldiers that defend the country.  Boot camp is only a few weeks long; not nearly enough time to erase a lifetime of physical neglect.  The first organizers of the President's Council on Youth Fitness faced criticism that state ordered fitness programs were paradoxically both communist and fascist.  In any case, the laissez-faire attitude towards developing youth health and fitness hasn't seemed to work very well for us.

China seems to have a stronger focus on the health and wellness of its people than what we see from our government here (maybe the critics during the Eisenhower administration were right!).  On a recent trip, I saw publicly available outdoor fitness equipment with clear usage instructions throughout the cities that we visited.  Cities organize morning tai chi sessions in public parks and hold line dancing in the evenings.  Bike riding used to be just for transportation, but now is becoming a fitness pursuit for middle class Chinese people.  The Chinese culture honors athletics while we tend to prioritize games.  Because of all this, my bet is that Chinese kids are on average stronger, faster, leaner, and healthier than American kids.
Outdoor playground for adults in Shanghai, China
Developing human feed stock for the army isn't the only reason for a country to want fit kids.  Most countries have national health coverage paid by the state through taxes.  This creates a direct motivation for the state to reduce lifestyle-related diseases whose treatment cost the taxpayers more than the cost of nutrition and activity programs.  With our privatized healthcare system here in the US, it seems we have less of a motivation to help kids learn to be healthy early in life.  Maybe at the school district level, administrators  have gotten so out-of-shape themselves that they can't stomach the hypocrisy of prioritizing physical education (both activity and instruction) higher.  Restricted class time and money pop up as the reason for PE cutbacks, but I don't buy the argument that they are the primary limiting factors for health education.

I think institutionalized laziness has woven itself into our cultural framework.  Play and games are viewed as just for kids.  Without a sport to train towards, many former athletes stop training all together.  Fitness as a goal in itself is growing as a movement, but our national waistlines still continue to grow.  We spend our time and money on what we prioritize highest.  30-60 minutes per day for developing physical health awareness would be energy well spent for all ages.  The earlier we start, the easy it is to make fitness a life long habit.
Kids learn whatever we teach them; what are we teaching them about their health? 

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Essential Skill: Swim Ashore

Swimming is a confusing sport, because sometimes you do it for fun, and other times you do it to not die. And when I'm swimming, sometimes I'm not sure which one it is.
- Demetri Martin
How would you handle this situation?
Swimming is an interesting physical skill to me.  Most people don't naturally swim, tread water or float--we need to learn this skill intentionally.  While babies love the water and automatically hold their breath under water, humans quickly develop an understandable and visceral fear of the water if they don't learn to swim early in life.  As a Marine, I saw some of the toughest people you'll ever meet collapse with fear at the prospect of jumping into water no deeper than their waist.  Running is also a skill that you need to develop, but people don't risk immediate death by starting a running program without adult supervision.  I'd even argue that open water swimming may be the most important physical skill that we teach children for saving their lives.  Oh and swimming is also a great exercise to develop cardiovascular & muscular endurance with minimal injury risk regardless of how skilled you may be at it.

For the swim ashore training standard, I propose that everybody should be able to comfortably swim at least 1 mile in open water without any flotation assistance.  We take boat rides all the time without a second thought and seldom know where the life jackets are stowed.  Wearing a life jacket for an afternoon of kayaking or canoeing in a lake may interfere with getting a good tan so you leave it at the rental shack.  You may fall overboard from a cruise ship while mindlessly strolling the deck at night.  For those of us who are comfortable in the water, scenarios like this are hardly life threatening.  We'd just compose ourselves after hitting the water and casually make our way ashore.  If you aren't comfortable in the water however, you'll die rather quickly without immediate assistance.
Swimming in the open water is very different than pool swimming
If you have kids, swim lessons are more than just a fun summer activity so get them comfortable in the water as early as you can.  If you're an adult who can't swim, tread water and float, check out basic swim lessons at the YMCA or Red Cross.  The next step for everyone is to get better at swimming with a focus on stroke mechanics.  The Masters Swimming organization is a great resource to improve this.  Start in a pool and strive to swim a mile* without stopping or hanging on the wall.  Finally, go find some open water and work up to completing a mile there.  You'll find that having to lift your head to navigate, negotiating the chop & current of the water and the psychological impact of swimming in unprotected water all make open water swimming significantly more challenging than pool swimming.

Being a physically fit human means that you can handle yourself in a wide variety of situations.  Strength and cardiovascular conditioning are huge components of this as are agility, balance, coordination and flexibility.  We need to train all of these consistently but swimming in open water should be top priority--for fun, health and life.
You either do it or you don't; there's no A for effort in survival.
*1 mile = 1,600 m = 70 lengths of a 25 yd pool (typically found in the US)

Monday, June 10, 2013

Essential Skill: Carry Your Own Bag

Why exercise?  It boils down to being a more effective person in my mind.  To that end, how do you know if you are effective as a human?  By being physically able to make your way through life without relying on others or becoming overly taxed.  As hunter gatherers on the plains 30,000 years ago, the set of physical skills we needed are different (and more challenging) than what we need today.  We still run into daily situations where being a little stronger, faster, quicker or more conditioned in general could mean the difference between life and death (or less dramatically, sweating through your dress shirt or not).  To address these modern challenges, I propose a few training standards that we should all strive to meet.
Sir, do you need help with your bag?
In no particular order, the first essential skill is for you to be able to comfortably move a carry-on sized piece of luggage up a few flights of stairs and lift it into the overhead bin. The target weight for a full carry on is 40 pounds.  Despite having handles, it will be an awkward load since all the weight will usually be in one arm for the stair climb so working out with asymmetric weight exercises would be good for this (dumbbells, kettlebells, one-arm pushups, pistols, etc).  To lift your bag into the overhead, you'll need to clean and press it above your head.  Learning to clean a medicine ball, sandbag, or other odd shaped object and then pressing it is key.  Barbell or kettlebell clean & press is good to but you'll find that the lack of a solid gripping point on an odd shaped item develops better real world strength.

Chivalry isn't dead but there may not be a strong man around when you need him.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Develop a Fitness Habit

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
-Lao Zi, Tao Te Ching

It's hard to get in shape.  There are no magic bullets.  Exercise hurts.  You can't get into shape without gutting through some difficult days or without fighting through laziness.  Discouraged?  Don't be.
Get off the sedentary highway by developing a daily fitness habit
As the classic quote above says, even the hardest endeavors have a starting point.  Here are 3 steps to get you started on a fitness path and keep you on it:
  1. Do a little something everyday
  2. Log what you do in a journal
  3. Tell other people what you are doing
The first step is to make an intention that you will do something everyday.  Pick something approachable like 10 pushups or walking 1 mile.  The easier it is, the more likely you'll do it.  The important part with this step is that you develop a daily habit or bias towards exercise.  The intensity or duration of whatever you chose is irrelevant for this goal.  Feel free to do other exercise but do your daily routine no matter what for at least 60 days straight.

Secondly, you need to log what you do.  This is also part of forming the exercise habit.  Tracking what you do gives you a sense of personal accomplishment.  The log will also be a record to help guide your exercise program as you start to see results.
If you don't track it, you can't fix it
Lastly, tell other people what your daily exercise is.  Your friends and family will remind you periodically and give you additional motivation to stay on the path.  This will also provide you with another source of pride as you are able to confirm to them that you already did your workout.

Getting healthy and fit doesn't have to be a daunting challenge.  Start with modest daily goals, log your activity and engage with those around you about your plan.  Pretty soon you'll be the athlete that you never thought you could be.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Fartlek: Funny Name, Great Workout

Running is an essential human movement.  Sprinting is an important skill to train as is steady-state longer running.  Our bodies are well-adapted to both styles of running so why not mix up your training and combine both into a single workout.  While I was in the Marine Corps, I was introduced to the Fartlek running workout.  Meaning "speed play" in Swedish, it's basically an interval running session during a jog.  The Marines add in calisthenics and bodyweight strength movements to their version of a Fartlek.
The USMC digs Fartleks and you should too
To get started, pick a running distance or time that you are very comfortable with completing on a low intensity running day.  Every 5 minutes or so, do one of the following variations to your steady jog:

  • Sprint
  • Run in soft sand
  • Run a hill
  • Skip
  • High knees
  • Butt kickers
  • Run backwards
  • Shuffle sideways
Adding a Fartlek every couple of weeks to your overall exercise program can make running more interesting for you and vary the stress that you put on your body thus reducing injury and hitting new muscle groups at the same time.  Give the Marine Corps style Fartlek a try as well and mix in pushups, crunches, bench step-ups, mountain climbers, bear crawls or whatever mixes up your training in an enjoyable way for you.

Happy Fartleking!