My girlfriend & I have joined forces on an e-book geared towards providing anyone walking into a Bikram yoga class, whether it’s their first time or they’ve been doing it for a while, with basic information about how their body functions when exercising in intense conditions, and what they need to know to take proper care of themselves.
(My girlfriend is a professional yoga teacher, and blogs at: http://yogamattes.com )
You can see the chapters on sweating and hydration in older posts, on my blog or hers. Again, these are chapters from an e-book geared towards hot yoga class, but the information in it is applicable to all kinds of athletes. We’re writing this guide from our experience in hot yoga, but we’re not just hot yogis—we’re hot no matter what we’re doing. (Har, har. See what I did there?) Anyway, here is some basic information about maintaining electrolyte balance, and what those electrolytes are actually doing in your body.
Chapter 3: Electrolytes
Balancing your hydration level is about more than just water. When thinking about sweat-loss and water intake, you also need to think about electrolytes. Your body’s nerve reactions and muscle functions depend on the proper concentration and exchange of these chemicals.
What exactly are electrolytes? Chemically, they are substances that ionize in solution (that is, dissolve in water) and acquire the capacity to conduct electricity. Some of the specific ones that are commonly measured by doctors are: sodium, potassium and chloride. These substances are lost through heavy sweating—and if you rehydrate with only clear water, then your electrolyte levels will be thrown out of balance; the ratio of water to electrolytes in your body will be altered.
Sodium is a majorly important positive ion in the fluid outside of cells (the interstitial fluid, like we talked about above.) The chemical notation of sodium is Na+. You know sodium best after it’s been combined with chloride—that’s the chemical composition of table salt.
Sodium regulates the total amount of water in the body, and the transmission of sodium into and out of individual cells plays a vital role in critical body functions (as we’ll see when we talk about nerve impulse conduction below.) Many, many processes in the body and brain require the conduction of electrical impulses for communication, integration and control, and the movement of sodium (a positive ion) is essential in generating these electrical signals. Therefore, too much or too little sodium leads to cell malfunction.
Potassium is a major positive ion found inside of cells (it’s chemical notation is K+.) Proper potassium level is essential for normal cell function—among many other things, it regulates heartbeat and the function of the muscles. A serious disruption of potassium levels can critically affect the nervous system and increases the risk of irregular heartbeats (arrhythmias.)
Hypokalemia is a decreased level of potassium. It can be brought on by kidney diseases, or excessive loss due to vomiting, diarrhea, or—most relevant to our subject—heavy sweating.
Chloride (Cl-) is a major negative ion found in the fluid outside of cells and in the blood. It is closely regulated by the body, and plays a role in maintaining a normal balance of fluids. Just like all the other electrolytes, it can be thrown out of balance by various diseases, but, relevant to our discussion, excessive loss can occur through heavy sweating.
Symptoms of Electrolyte Imbalance
An electrolyte imbalance can create a number of different symptoms—and the specific symptoms that manifest will depend on which of the electrolyte levels are affected. Altered potassium, sodium, magnesium or calcium levels can lead to: muscle spasm or cramping, weakness, twitching and convulsion.
When the levels are low (the more likely scenario in a Bikram Yoga class, as opposed to high,) it can cause: irregular heartbeat, confusion, blood pressure changes, headache, dizziness and nausea.
In a hot yoga or Bikram Yoga class, by far the most common signs of electrolyte imbalance will be headache, dizziness, nausea, and cramping.
Replenishing Lost Electrolytes
So we know now that these ionizing substances are essential for a host of critical body functions, and that they are lost during heavy sweating, potentially, and very likely, to the point of excess. So the next step, logically, is to replace the lost electrolytes and maintain the balance. The best way to do that is with consistent intake of electrolytes.
A good rule of thumb to follow: drink your water with electrolytes. Don’t just chug clear water before, while, and after sweating heavily—replenish your lost water and your lost electrolytes together by adding sources of electrolytes directly to your water. As one example: try clear water with added raw honey to taste, a pinch of unrefined salt, and freshly squeezed lemon juice. Take this concoction with you into class—steadily replete both your electrolytes and water together, even as you deplete them through sweating.
When, during or after class, you need an extra boost of electrolytes, supplementation is appropriate. If you experience symptoms of electrolyte imbalance as you practice, you should seek out some concentrated source, such as electrolyte-replenishment packets (like “Emergen-C” or “Ultima,”) or simply a small pinch of sea salt dissolved on the tongue.
Meanwhile, take electrolytes in steadily through diet in your daily life. Don’t rely on concentrated supplementation alone. What that means is, if you do something that causes you extreme electrolyte depletion all the time—like sweating heavily in a Bikram yoga class several times per week—take the initiative. Take steps to prevent imbalances in the first place. You should always be attempting to take in replacement electrolytes at a steady pace throughout your daily life—not only in occasional concentrated mouthfuls after you have already realized the balance is drastically off. This is done through a diet rich in electrolytes. For instance, you know you’re going to consistently lose potassium through sweat in class—so take it in just as consistently, from dietary sources like bananas or coffee. Or whatever—just find sources that work for you and make electrolyte replenishment a dietary priority.
Electrolytes should be taken in in the same consistent, gradual, measured way that you supply your body with water. You know you lose a great deal of water in class, so you consistently take in reasonable amounts of water during the day, every day. In other words, you keep hydration in mind even when you’re not dehydrated. In the same way, keep electrolyte balance in mind, even before you experience symptoms of imbalance.
Extra Notes on Sodium
Sodium warrants special attention for a couple of reasons. One, it is among the main electrolytes lost in sweat (hence sweat’s salty taste.) Two, you generally don’t get much of it from commercially available electrolyte drinks and powders. As a result, you may be taking in a healthy amount of other electrolytes, but, because you are losing so much through sweat and taking in so little through electrolyte drinks or powders, you may still fall short of replenishing lost sodium.
General medical guidelines for low sodium levels recommend restricting fluid intake in order to prevent hyponatremia (too little sodium in the body, relative to water,) but in the context of Bikram Yoga practice, limiting fluid intake is not appropriate. That guideline is general, and does not apply to anyone who regularly loses huge amounts of water through sweat. In the case of low sodium-concentration brought on by massive loss through sweating and dilution by clear water intake, the solution is, logically, increased intake of sodium. A pinch of salt on the tongue, a pinch of salt added to your water, a sprinkling of salt on your food after class. However you take it in, you will need a little boost of sodium to properly replenish what you lose while practicing, before you’re ready to go into the room and sweat again.
Certain medications may cause electrolyte imbalances, such as: chemotherapy drugs, diuretics, antibiotics and corticosteroids. If you are on any of these medications, it is important to keep track of your electrolyte levels. Make sure your doctor knows you are practicing hot yoga and understands how much heavy sweating is involved.
Chapter 4: Nerves
Electrolytes are essential for generating the electrical impulses that facilitate the nervous system’s communication and control. How exactly does that work? We’ll take a short, simplified look at it, to a) illustrate how the electrolytes we’ve discussed actually function by conducting electrical impulses and b) to set the stage for the next chapter, wherein we’ll look at the nervous system. There are two main types of cells in the nervous system—neuroglia and neurons. Neurons are the one we’ll be considering here. They can be afferent (conducting impulses towards the brain) or efferent (conducting impulses away from the brain.)
A neuron consists of a cell body (also called the soma or perikaryon,) the axon, and one or more dendrites. The dendrites of a neuron are processes that stick off and branch like tiny trees (in fact, the name comes from the Greek word for tree.) The dendrites receive impulses to conduct from other neurons. Once received, the impulse travels down the axon—a long process, like a thin tail—and reaches the next neuron by way of terminal branched filaments called telodendria. Axons can vary in length from a meter long to a few millimeters. They also vary in width—from about 20 nanometers down to a single nanometer.
In order to understand how impulse conduction works, and how electrolytes are involved, it pays to get familiar with a few relevant terms.
Potential difference—an electrical difference, or an electrical gradient. A potential difference is the difference between the electrical charge present at two points. A potential difference is a form of potential energy. It is a force that has the potential to move positively charged ions down an electrical gradient, that is, from a point of higher positive charge to a point of lower positive charge.
Polarized membrane—a membrane whose outer and inner surface have different amounts of electrical charges. Basically, a potential difference exists across a polarized membrane.
Depolarized membrane—a membrane whose outer and inner surface have equal amounts of electrical charge. A potential difference does not exist across a depolarized membrane; it is zero.
When a neuron is not conducting, the inner surface of its membrane is slightly negative to its outer surface. There is a potential difference across its membrane—in a nonconducting neuron, this is called “resting potential.” The mechanism that creates this resting potential is primarily a sodium-potassium pump, built into the neuron’s plasma membrane (the outer membrane of the neuron.) This pump actively transports positive sodium and potassium ions through the plasma membrane in opposite directions and at different rates. For every 3 sodium ions it moves out, it moves 2 potassium ions in. If, for instance, it pumped 100 potassium ions into a nerve cell from the extracellular fluid, it concurrently pumps 150 sodium ions out of the cell. This makes the inner surface of the neuron’s membrane slightly less positive—or, slightly negative—to its outer surface.
Blamo—there you have the potential difference in a nonconducting neuron known as resting potential. Now, an impulse comes along for the “resting” neuron to conduct.
1) When a sufficient stimulus is applied to the neuron, it vastly increases the permeability of its membrane to sodium ions at the point of stimulation (it lets more sodium in.)
2) The positive sodium ions rush in towards the point of stimulation. The excess of sodium outside the membrane, therefore, diminishes. It quickly reaches zero. In other words, the stimulated point of the membrane is no longer polarized. But only for an instant. Quickly—within milliseconds—the positive sodium ions streaming in create an excess of sodium inside the cell and trigger an action potential. An action potential is a potential difference across a neuron’s membrane with the inside positive to the outside. So, since resting potential has the inside negative to outside, action potential is a reverse polarization. The inside becomes positive to the outside. Development of action potential at the stimulated point of the neuron marks the beginning of impulse conduction.
3) A chain reaction occurs. The action potential of the stimulated part of the membrane becomes the stimulus for the adjacent part of the membrane, and that next stimulated point goes into the same process. The action potential moves along the length of the neuron, point by point, conducting the electrical impulse on to its destination.
[Next up, the nervous system and the fight-or-flight response.]
My girlfriend and I have joined forces on an e-book, geared towards providing anyone walking into a Bikram yoga class, whether it’s their first time or they’ve been doing it for a while, with basic information about how their body functions when exercising in intense conditions, and what they need to know to take proper care of themselves.
(My girlfriend is a professional Bikram yoga instructor—here’s a link to her blog: http://yogamattes.com)
So, we’re writing the book with a Bikram Yoga class in mind, but the basic information in there could be useful to pretty much any kind of athlete. These first two chapters are on sweating and hydration—those are important no matter what your sport or style of training is.
Well over a century ago, a French physiologist named Claude Bernard (1813-1878) made a very important observation. He observed that body cells survive in a healthy condition only when the temperature, pressure and chemical composition of their fluid environment remains relatively constant. This is still a pivotal observation in modern physiology. We don’t call the environment of cells the milieu interne, like he did—we call it the extracellular fluid. Extracellular fluid fills the microscopic spaces between cells, and it is actually of two types: interstitial fluid, and blood plasma (the fluid part of whole blood, as opposed to the red or white blood-cells.)
The relatively constant state of the cellular environment is called homeostasis. The literal meaning of homeostasis in Greek is “Standing or staying the same.” That doesn’t mean our body’s homeostasis is something that stays the same all the time and never varies, it just means that, while the internal environment will vary, the body will work ceaselessly to keep it relatively constant—because there is a narrow margin for change in our internal environment before the cellular and chemical processes that are the literal basis of life cease to move along properly. As an example, the homeostasis of blood temperature is 98º F, but it will vary slightly above and below that point. For the most part, though, the body has mechanisms in place to keep blood temperature there, even when environmental factors outside the body threaten to change it. Mechanisms for maintaining homeostasis involve the functioning of nearly all the body’s organs and systems. The body has its metaphorical hands full, working endlessly to maintain the constant internal environment upon which its survival depends, adjusting continually to a changing external environment.
Temperature regulation is of the utmost importance, because life depends on various chemical reactions taking place inside the body at a certain rate—and changing temperature changes the rate of chemical reactions. Unchecked internal temperature fluctuation would have catastrophic effects for the body, so there are thermostatic mechanisms in place to maintain—yes, you guessed it—temperature homeostasis. To maintain an even temperature, the body must balance heat production with heat loss—if extra heat is produced, that amount must be lost. Heat loss, primarily, occurs through the skin by the processes of evaporation, radiation, conduction and convection.
And that (finally!) brings us to sweat. Sweat is produced by sudoriferous glands, the most numerous of all the skin glands. Histologists estimate that one square inch of skin on the palm of your hand contains 3,000 little coiled, less-than-0.4-mm-diameter sweat glands. The number of sweat glands all over your body can exceed 3 million. These glands will work throughout life to produce a watery fluid rich in salts, ammonia, uric acid, urea and other wastes—a fluid which in addition to excreting wastes helps maintain a constant core temperature. And obviously, if the replenishment of lost fluids is not adequate, serious dehydration will occur. (In extreme conditions the body is capable of an astonishing sweat-production of 3 liters per hour for short periods—a prodigious rate which will almost always exceed what we can replace by drinking.)
Heat energy must be expended to evaporate any fluid, so evaporation of sweat is a major method by which the body loses excess heat. (When you’re in a Bikram yoga class and your teacher says, “Don’t wipe the sweat! It’s helping to cool you down,” that’s what she means.) The process of evaporation taking place on the surface of your skin is contributing majorly to heat loss. Evaporation is especially important in high-temperature environments, where evaporation is the only means the body has for heat-loss. Radiation and conduction involve the transference of body heat to a nearby surface with a cooler temperature (that’s what happens, it’s just thermodynamics) but in the hot-room during a Bikram class, everything around you is just as hot as you are, so you can’t lose heat that way. Evaporation is literally your body’s only shot at cooling itself down. So, leave that sweat there, and if it tickles a little as it drips down, just deal with it.
A humid atmosphere inevitably retards evaporation, which is why a really humid class leaves everyone flat on their mats, even if the temperature wasn’t any higher than usual. But that doesn’t mean you have no hope for heat loss through evaporation in a humid room: a ceiling fan, no matter how slowly it’s rotating, can be your saving grace. Convection is the transfer of heat away from a surface (for instance, the surface of your skin) by movement of heated air or fluid particles. The moving air, even if it doesn’t feel cooler, will allow your body to lose more of the excess heat than it could in a stagnant atmosphere. So avail yourself to the fan, if possible, even if it doesn’t feel like it’s doing much.
Sometimes your teacher will mention the antimicrobial properties of sweat. That doesn’t mean exactly what it sounds like—your sweat isn’t some natural cleaning product that will leave the hot room, by virtue of the gallons of sweat shed into the carpets daily, a sterile environment which never needs cleaning, where we could safely perform surgery or assemble microchips. But sweat does play a part, along with the sebaceous or oil glands, in maintaining a surface film which covers your skin, providing a protective barrier against bacteria and fungus, hydrating the skin surface, buffering against various caustic irritants, and blocking a verity of toxic agents. So, there’s another reason not to hastily wipe sweat away as soon as it starts to glisten on your forehead.
All this talk of sweat brings us to a strongly related topic—hydration. Water is lost through sweating, and water regulates your body temperature, lubricates joints, and helps transport nutrients. So obviously you don’t want to lose it without replacing it.
If you’re not properly hydrated, your body simply cannot function at its highest level—and dehydration can lead to fatigue, muscle cramps, dizziness and more serious symptoms.
There are no rules set in stone, when it comes to guidelines for water-intake before, during and after exercise. Everyone is different. And there are a lot of variables affecting water-loss—heat and humidity, exercise intensity and duration, general level of physical “fitness.” Body weight makes a difference, age can make a difference, etc., etc. Your specific need for water is just that—specifically yours.
The simplest way to monitor that you’re staying properly hydrated is to check your urine. Don’t wince, this is science. If your urine is remaining consistently clear or light yellow, you are most likely staying well hydrated. (Before actually walking into a Bikram yoga class, you should be well-hydrated enough that your urine is clear, but day to day, straw-colored urine is ideal.) If your urine is amber-colored or dark brown, it’s a sign that you’re becoming dehydrated.
There are further general guidelines to be found on the internet regarding water intake in relation to exercise, but, again, your need for water isn’t general. It’s specific to you. And a good guideline that’s specific to you is—yes!—your level of thirst. If you’re thirsty, drink. Stop drinking when you’re not thirsty anymore. Then, when you’re thirsty again later, drink some more. Following that golden rule, and also being aware of the color of your urine and learning to “read” it to judge your level of hydration in realtime, will very quickly lead you to an intuitive understanding of how to balance your water intake with water-loss in your own body and life.
The signs of dehydration include headache, dizziness or lightheadedness, nausea or vomiting, muscle cramps, dry mouth, cessation of sweating, and heart palpitations. Signs of severe dehydration include mental confusion, weakness and or loss of consciousness. Obviously, you should seek medical attention immediately if you experience any of those symptoms.
Severe dehydration is no joke.
But over-hydration is also a thing. Hyponatremia occurs when there is too little sodium in the body—as can happen when someone, like an endurance athlete for instance, drinks too much water. Hyponatremia is a rare condition involving swelling of the body-cells with water, including, potentially, swelling of the brain. This is an extreme and it’s rare, but it pays to be aware of it, and aware of the trend of excessive water-intake that can lead to it. Excessive water intake of such a catastrophic, heroically disproportionate level comes from ignoring your thirst-level and drinking to some outside guideline. That is, not drinking because you’re thirsty, but drinking because someone told you how much water to drink, so you think you need to force down that last bottle.
Drink to thirst, keep an eye on your urine. That’s the way to self-regulate your hydration and keep it in healthy parameters.
[Next chapter will be on maintaining blood electrolyte balance.]
Last night, a friend of mine asked me why I lift weights and build my body. She wasn’t being flip—she was actually intrigued by it, and wanted to understand what motivates me in the kind of training I do. I replied—and here’s what I said.
“HEY! So, why the training? Sorry in advance for writing a really long thing, but I’m getting pretty fascinated by trying to answer the question, because it forces me to step back and take a fresh look at why I do what I do, getting it clear enough to communicate it to someone else.
Really, the WHY varies from person to person, and there are as many different drives finding an outlet in bodybuilding as there are bodybuilders (and many, many different drives finding an outlet EVEN IN ONE bodybuilder, haha). But I can only get into my own stuff, and what I’ve talked about with my coach. (Did you read The Man Who Pulled HIs Own Leg? I don’t want to just rehash stuff from the book to answer your question, but a lot of the basic personal reasons I transitioned from yoga to bodybuilding are in there.)
One of the big things that keeps me with the training is that I JUST LOVE IT. Like, I love the actual moment of lifting a heavy thing. Since I take a lot of joy in the training itself, even if I made little or no ‘gains’ I would still be lifting. I do it because I find it amazing that my body is capable of it, and that keeps me intrigued by progressively discovering just how MUCH MORE my body is capable of. That, and feeling good physically as a result of it—so on a bodily level, basically the same exact two things that kept me with yoga for the past decade, and with martial arts for even longer than that.
I authentically enjoy the physical activity of hard, manual labor, even if that’s something as simple as having to move a pile of boulders from one place to another for some practical reason. Weightlifting is a way to enjoy that kind of thing systematically, for it’s own sake, while developing the ability to do more and more of the work as time goes on.
As for bodybuilding, WHY build bigger muscles and aspire to certain physical aesthetics, for their own sake, distinct from any actual application in physical or athletic work—that’s harder to answer because it has a lot of different motivations simultaneously. I’m not kidding when I say, for me, it is basically sarcastic. I do it with a wink. But at the same time, even though I’m doing it sarcastically, it’s very, very much NOT a joke (I don’t know if that contradiction makes much sense, but the fact that my coach instantly understood what I meant by it is one of the big reasons we get along so well, haha.) What I mean is, I don’t take it that seriously because I don’t derive my sense of self from, say, my biceps, but at the same time, it’s the outlet of a very serious artistic impulse. It’s not any different from the impulse to paint something or sculpt something. Except instead of working with canvass or marble, I’m working with my own genetics and physiology.
My left brain is intrigued because it’s a way to delve into how the body works and explore it on a practical level—practical, because it’s aimed at actually making observable changes—and my right brain is satisfied because the work-in-progress is something deeply artistic, aiming for the creation of a pretty damn powerful symbol. It’s the archetypes that are represented by a jacked body-as-a-symbol that make it compelling to work towards. Just ask ancient Greek sculptors. That’s why bodybuilding poses exist. They’re tools to express an ideal, and since they’re all about being seen, they’re about communicating something with other people.
And on the subject of being seen, the attention that comes with creating an imposing or impressive physique is also satisfying on some vain level, haha. I admitted to Dev a while ago that the bodybuilding progress-shots I was uploading to Facebook all the time while she was far away weren’t coincidence—they were almost entirely for her benefit. 😉
Lastly, for me, bodybuilding is kind of a mental deprogramming from a lot of stuff I’ve worked through in the past, where I glorified feeling shut-down and inadequate by justifying it with deconstructive philosophies—destroy the ego, abandon identification with the body, surrender all attachments, remain emotionally aloof from worldly things, etc, etc. I’m not knocking Eastern religions, I’m just saying I related to those ideas in a way that was basically negative.
And bodybuilding is a way of continuing to turn around from that, because what’s more body-positive, constructive and creative than directly working to get physically bigger? Hahaha.”
You’ve probably heard the old saying that “Those who can’t do, teach.” Maybe you took offense on the behalf of teachers everywhere—maybe you are a teacher, and were personally offended. I can certainly understand that. It’s a crass, infuriating sentiment—it’s used ignorantly by ignorant people who don’t appreciate what a complex and amazing skill it is to effectively teach someone something.
But actually, there’s some truth in it.
Have you ever had a teacher who was naturally gifted at whatever they were trying to teach you? Didn’t it suck? Weren’t they drastically out of touch with the experience of an average student, struggling to make progress in something that feels at every step unnatural or confusing? For instance, if you were a middle-aged, heavyset man with a history of football injuries, just starting to take yoga classes, would you want a slim, flexible 20-something woman who has been doing yoga since she was a teenager—and had never done anything else—as a teacher? If it all comes easily to her, how realistic would her frame of reference be for what an actual struggle it is for you to touch your toes? How safe and clear will her instructions be for you to follow? Wouldn’t someone who had been through the exact or comparable difficulties to yours be much better equipped to give you guidance? Someone who had already bumbled through what you’re bumbling through, and already made a vast stock of observations regarding the pitfalls and benefits associated with everything you’re doing? Probably. Probably, in this hypothetical situation, a heavyset, middle aged man who had used yoga to rehabilitate old football injuries would be your ideal teacher. The man who initially couldn’t do much of anything would, after years of difficulty and gradual progress, be the best possible teacher for you.
So the saying should be, “Those who at first couldn’t do, teach.”
It’s the people who have had to think critically about their limitations and make experienced-based judgments about what is approachable (or even beneficial) for an average person who are the best teachers, because their experience is a resource for them to use in relating to the difficulties of their students. Whereas someone who easily followed along with everything their instructors told them from day one, and who skyrocketed from beginner to advanced to elite faster than anyone else in their class, has no comparable resources to draw from as a teacher. A champion-level yoga-practitioner trying to teach a beginner could easily assume a student working with a limitation is just lazy—because they simply don’t have the experience of a body that doesn’t bend very far even during intense effort. They might tell their students to stop messing around and work harder. Thanks to this in-touch, compassionate advice, the struggling students suddenly morph into a different body-type altogether and enjoy hitherto undiscovered ranges of motion. Whoops. No, I meant to say, “Thanks to this advice, the students promptly hurt themselves doing something that is inappropriate for their bodies.”
Something I draw on as a martial arts instructor, is the fact that when I started training in martial arts, I was very, very light. I only weighed about 100lbs. Ergo, it was essential for me to really understand the body-mechanics involved in generating powerful strikes. I had literally no choice. If I had started to learn Taekwondo weighing as much as I do now, 13 years later, I could easily have relied on brute strength to generate equal or greater levels of power behind my strikes. But since I was instead forced by my small size to use critical thinking, and to devoutly absorb the technical instructions of my teachers, and to develop nuanced skill to generate power, I now have that mental model of the mechanics of each technique to draw upon when instructing my own students. If I had started off being able to deliver strong blows with ease, I would be a less effective teacher.
The same goes for teaching anything. Your struggles in it become the resource with which you can instruct others.
“Fitness” is a highly coveted state. If you want to know what that state entails, never fear: there are plenty of weekend Crossfit warriors and people who have taken two or three Bikram yoga classes in their lifetime who will be happy to tell you in intimate detail that they have arrived at the one true definition of “fitness,” and then proceed to magnanimously climb down from their high horse and explain to you exactly what you need to do to become, like them, “fit.”
But if, like me, you have a sneaking suspicion that “fitness” is meaningless jargon engineered to sell magazines and keep self-dissatisfied people scrambling after an illusory goal, then I have something you might be interested in reading. Here’s a small excerpt from my book, “The Man Who Pulled His Own Leg,” about my experiences, observations and reflections over the past nine years in yoga, and also in bodybuilding.
“This is a good moment to mention something important: ‘Fitness,’ as most people use and understand the term, is a mythic state. Next time someone says something along the lines of ‘I’m really fit,’ treat them like they just said, ‘I’m actually a unicorn.’ It is a state of being that exists only in their imagination, fueled by desperation to be a happy, beautiful immortal. It’s the plasticized, Photoshopped state of a man on the cover of a magazine, whose shaved abs and percent body-fat demand a constant, obsessive maintenance that his cool, suave expression belie. It’s a non-specific athletic mastery of everything, including things we haven’t tried yet. It’s a symbiotic unity of perfect health, dazzling functionality and sculpted physical aesthetics, carried to an expression of perfection where they’ve all hit critical-mass and perpetually sustain themselves, needing only air and good cheer for fuel—leaving the Fit Superhuman with nothing to do but engage effortlessly in rigorous recreational activities, bask in their own classical beauty and have terrific sex, on and on forever.
The reality is, fitness is always specific. It’s always fitness to do something. It makes no difference if that thing is running or pole-vaulting or lifting weights or doing yoga. By doing that thing, you increase your fitness for it—your body continually adapts to that specific thing, to the detriment of your fitness for other things. A champion Strongman athlete looks and performs nothing like a champion Marathoner—they are both ‘fit’ to the highest degree in their particular sport, but the adaptations that brought their bodies to that high level of fitness were drastically different. This doesn’t mean you can’t be in generally good shape—defining ‘good shape’ as having the strength, stamina and natural mobility to engage in a wide array of activities, enjoy a great quality of life and maintain a high level of activeness for years to come. That is immanently feasible—that’s primal human heritage. That’s how the body evolved to work. But something people don’t acknowledge when they think about fitness, is that such a general state as being ‘in good shape’ necessarily doesn’t veer to any extremes. If you want to engage in specific activities—say, yoga—to a point where your abilities are truly exceptional, you’re inevitably going to take away from your ability to do other things exceptionally. Your body will adapt to yoga so heavily that there’s no room left for adaption to other activities—if you want to shift your adaptation in another direction, you can, but it’s going to come at the cost of your previous extreme adaptation.
Being ‘in good shape’ doesn’t require anything more than a novice-to-intermediate level of ability in any particular thing. For instance, you can progress from being completely sedentary to being pretty good at yoga and see a massive corresponding increase in your general quality of life. But that’s as far as the principle extends, before the returns for your effort start diminishing. After that point, the shifts from intermediate-to-advanced-to-elite will have absolutely no corresponding increase in your general quality of life, because at that point the training you’re doing is specialized. It’s yoga-specific (or anything-else-specific) adaptation that has no practical overlap with the outside world.
Nothing in excess, everything in balance. You know what that is? It’s the fucking slogan of ‘Core’ dog-food company. Who cares where wisdom comes from. Learn it by heart.”
If you’re interested in reading some more excerpts, here’s my book’s Facebook page:
Not many people take a lot of time to warm up before a workout. It seems like, unless they’re in a class (like a martial arts or yoga class) where gentle stretching and warming-up is part of the routine, and there’s an instructor leading them through it, people would just as soon jump straight into lifting or cardio without taking any time for simple mobility exercises. But taking time to properly warm-up mitigates risk of injury, improves circulation to muscles and joints—which improves performance—and gives you a few minutes to shift mental gears from whatever you have been doing out in the world all day, to whatever you’re about to do in the gym. Give yourself a good warmup as part of your next workout. Give yourself that chance to check in with your body and gently test how everything is moving and feeling today, and give yourself a chance to bring your mind into the room, so you’re fully present when you get down to your first deadlift or squat or whatever.
Part of the problem is that, unless they’ve learned it already, again in a context like martial-arts or yoga, most people don’t HAVE a go-to warmup routine to use. They don’t know any good ones, ergo they just don’t do it.
BLAMO—GUESS THE FUCK WHAT. Here’s a general purpose warmup and whole-body stretch I generally use before a workout. Call it routine A, if you want—we’ll take a look at routine B later. I’m putting it up here, free to a good home. Do as many reps of all this stuff as you want, take as long with it all as you want.
· First off, hold a full squat for a while. (Feet a little over shoulder-width apart, ass to the grass or as close as you can get it. A couple minutes at the bottom of a squat is all the stretching for hip flexibility you need. Come up every now and then for a second if you feel like you need to get the blood moving back down in your legs, it’s no problem.
· Walk around shaking out your arms, legs and shoulders to get the blood flowing; throw in some light trunk-twisting, and some swimming motions with the arm/shoulders—breast-stroke and back-stroke. Do that for as long as you want. When I’m leading the warmup for a martial arts class, we stick with swimming-motions for a good 30 seconds to get our shoulders ready.
· Walking, lift your knee way up with each step, grabbing it with both hands and pulling it towards your chest. You’ll especially feel the stretch at the attachment of the hamstrings and glute. (Day after Leg Day, this stretch is hella uncomfortable.) Remember this about all stretching: it isn’t like lifting! Nothing should be done hard. Think 50% intensity, max. You’re not trying to rip your body open, you’re trying to increase natural range of motion gently and steadily. Also, breathing always normal. Normal breathing is breathing you don’t even have to think about. (Mouth closed, inhale/exhale naturally through the nose.)
· Walking, lift your foot up behind you with each step, reaching back to grab it around the instep and pull it in like you’re trying to crack a nut between your calf and hamstring, stretching the quadriceps. Make sure you keep good posture, chest up, shoulders back, little arch in the lower back to increase the stretch.
· Step forward into a lunge, gently sinking down as deep as you can go. Put both arms up over your head and lean to the side away from your bent leg. Keep stepping forward through lunges, leaning side to side in alternate directions each time. You can break perfect lunge form in these to increase your stretch in the hip—that is, bent knee going beyond the line of your toes is fine, it’ll bring your hips down further and give a better stretch. you’re not lifting any weight, so don’t worry that it’s bad form.
Now back to the shoulders. Find a broom handle, straight walking stick, PVC pipe, whatever. (If you need to, you can even use a towel—holding either end and pulling it tight, not hard, just enough to maintain tension.) Grab it with both hands, about as far apart as you would hold the barbell doing an overhead press. Hold your stick up over your head, and move it backwards as far as you can. You’ll feel the stretch in your front, anywhere and everywhere from your anterior deltoids down the front of your body, depending on your level of flexibility. Gently pull your shoulder blades together, arch your back a little. Hold it however the fuck long you feel like.
Holding the stick the same way, bring it in a big arc down to one side—now one arm is behind your head, one arm is out to the side. don’t let your elbows bend. same deal as before, don’t do this hard—your goal isn’t to tear your body apart. Hold the stretch for a while. Do both sides, as many times as you want.
• Finish with another full squat, again holding it for a couple minutes. Seriously, holding a squat like this will up your hip mobility like you wouldn’t believe. Another thing you can try, is reaching up to grab something with your hands so you can “hang” from it while you’re holding the squat. I just set the barbell in my squat rack at the right hight to use for this. That’s a pretty easy way, but you can use whatever you want. You’ll get a great stretch in your back and shoulders that way. Gentle, gentle, gentle, everything gentle. It’s a warmup. It shouldn’t be hard.
Next summer, everybody is going to be looking for a fast, easy way to get a flat stomach and six-pack abs.
I’m here to tell you: winter is the time to start. Give yourself MONTHS to undertake your new fitness routine and make steady progress. That way you’ll have real, lasting results to show off next summer when you finally pull the big reveal and take your shirt off the first day it’s warm and sunny again.
I’m also here to share the one big secret everyone who’s looking for a way to melt fat, build muscle and transform their body needs to know: you’ll have to train hard, and train consistently. There’s no magic trick. I have nothing to sell you, and anyone who says they have something to sell you “to make getting fit easy” is lying. You don’t need a miracle, you just need to work steadily and have a critical, intelligent attitude towards your physical conditioning. Don’t take everything everyone tells you about fitness and nutrition at face value. Discriminate. There is a ton of bad advice out there—way more bad than good. Time to tackle some of the long-standing misconceptions surrounding “getting a six-pack,” and maybe arrive at some good ideas about intelligent training in the process.
• Forget crunches and sit-ups. They are a lousy exercise for your abs, and they put more strain on your low-back than they’re worth. I realize it might be hard to sever all ties with an exercise that’s been touted for generations, but once you’ve tried a few ab workouts composed of better exercises, you won’t even miss crunches or sit-ups.
• Recognize that your abs don’t function alone when you exercise. You don’t get nice abs without having a nice core. Core muscles include everything from just below the chest, down to your knees—front and back. Working abs safely and effectively is going to involve working that whole area.
• “Plank” is your friend. Plank is a terrific core-muscle workout. You can’t do too much plank. Start off shooting for a 30 second hold, and gradually try to build to a minute. Then two minutes!
• If you’re going to plank, do it right. Hips parallel to the floor. Elbows in line underneath your shoulders.
• Is plank getting easy? Make it harder. As it gets easier, try moving your elbows forward from the line of your shoulders. It’ll be way harder!
• There are a million and one other plank variations. Do your homework. Find the variations that you like, that work for you, and try them out! Have fun. Play plank.
• Try out other core workouts, find what works for you. Have you ever tried knee-raises? L-sits? Why not? Try it. Try new things! Have fun!
• L-sits: Space two chairs next to each other, so you can stand between them with your arms down by your sides, hands on the chair backs (make sure they’re chairs that will stay steadily in place as you go.) Lift your feet off the floor, so now you’re holding yourself up with your hands. With legs straight and toes pointed, try to raise your legs parallel to the floor. That’s an L-sit! Hold it as long as you can, even if that’s only 1 or 2 seconds at first. Work steadily! Keep trying, build it up to 30 seconds. Who cares if it takes a long time to develop?
• Get a workout buddy. It’s easier to train with a friend than alone.
• Try this fun workout with your buddy: Partner A lays down flat on their back, raises feet up vertical to the floor. Partner B stands over Partner A’s head, and Partner A grabs Partner B’s ankles with both hands for stability. Now, Partner B (not too hard at first!) pushes Partner A’s feet away. Just a quick push, directly away—Partner A will get a terrific core workout by trying to keep his or her legs straight up in the air while they’re being pushed away. When you’re tired, switch places and give your buddy a turn!
• Knee-raises: Hang straight down from a pull-up bar. Bring your bent legs up until your knees are parallel to the floor. From there, raise your legs up towards your chest, high as your can, then lower them back to parallel. That’s one rep. Do as many as you can! Build up to 12 over time.
• Leg-raises: Lay flat on your back—if you want, you can put your hands underneath your tailbone for extra support. Raise your legs two inches off the floor. That’s all. Just hold it! You’ll quickly realize what a good core workout it is. Navy SEALs don’t do this in bootcamp for no reason.
• Scissor-kicks: After you’re done with leg-raises, stay in position while you catch your breath. When you’re ready, lift your legs up again two inches off the floor. Now, gently kick your legs up and down, legs staying straight, alternating. One up, one down, one up, one down. Legs never touch the floor as you go, they just keep going up and down a couple inches in the air. Go until your tired, put your lags down and catch your breath, then do another set. What do you have in common with a black-belt? This exercise.
• Train with free weights. Do your homework on the proper way to work with a barbell. Get a coach. Seriously. Free weights are way more effective than training with gym machines. Squats, deadlifts, bench-press. They will all work your core in a positive way.
• Forget about weighing yourself. Weight is a stupid metric for measuring the success of a health and fitness regimen. Really—muscle weighs more than fat. Also, as you get more fit, other changes in your body composition are going to play into changing your weight. Things like denser bones and stronger joints—they will change your weight. Just going by weight is a really narrow, pointless way to measure your health.
• You can do more to change your body with exercise than you can with diet. Forget fad diets. Forget diet “reboots” and “jumpstarts.” Those are short-term results. You want long-term results. You get those long-term results from exercise—as long as you’re consistent and make an ongoing commitment to your fitness training.
• Have incremental goals. Abandon the mindset that always looks for sudden, miraculous transformations, and gives up when you don’t immediately see the results you want. Instead of having such broad, extravagant goals that they serve to discourage rather than motivate you—because you always see yourself falling beneath them—have incremental goals that carry you in the direction you want to go. There’s always a next step to take, there’s always progress to make. If your goals are incremental instead of all-or-nothing, you’ll always have the next goal within reach. You’ll always see yourself passing milestones, and that will give you the motivation to keep trudging along the road.
• Track your progress. Write everything down. Keep track of your workouts. Track how long your worked in each session, track everything you did. Keep good notes. Give yourself hard data to follow, to see what’s working and to measure your progress.