A Best Practices Guide for the Masters Athlete

 IBJJF World Masters 3 Absolute Runner Up Jay Marist.  photo credit:  Jay Marist

IBJJF World Masters 3 Absolute Runner Up Jay Marist.  photo credit: Jay Marist

Competition and logging long hours in the gym do not stop when you turn 30. There’s no better proof of that than the mats at your jiu jitsu school, CrossFit box, or obstacle races like Spartan. It’s why the over 30 crowd is increasingly well represented in the physical pursuits of many individual athletes.

The Masters athlete may be the fastest growing category of athlete and fitness enthusiast. Those reading this familiar with the term already know what I am referring to, but for the uninitiated:

The Masters divisions in many sports refers to the athlete who is generally over the age of 30, and wishes to compete at either an amateur or pro level of sport. Many sports like Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, CrossFit or Powerlifting will further break this up into “Masters 1, Masters 2,” etc, based on further age brackets over 30.

Because of the increased popularity of sports and competitions in Brazilian jiu jitsu and CrossFit, and the age range running a wide spectrum, this phenomenon is really no surprise at all: people of all ages want to be healthy and compete to test their abilities. 

What concerns me though, is that all too often, we take the published advice of what’s advocated for professional athletes in their early-20’s and apply to the athlete over 30. Worse yet, is the master’s athlete trying to keep up with a 23-year old prospect banging out two-a-days at the gym.  The world is (sadly) not created equal for all, and in order to live out maximum glory on the mats or the floor of the box, we need to acknowledge where we are at in life, figure out where we can over-perform, where we currently underperform, and maximize our health.  

By no means am I recommending you use your age as an excuse. We need to get that out of the way right now: you are not to ever use your age as an excuse (or anything as an excuse really, who wants to hear excuses?). You simply need to acknowledge the reality of the hand you’re currently dealt and play the heck out of that hand. Crude analogies aside, let’s explore what I mean.

 

CONSIDER YOUR TRAINING AGE

One of the first assessments I make with all new clients, especially athletes, is their “training age.” By training age, I mean the amount of years they’ve been actively exerting their body physically in the gym and/or in sport. Depending on their “age,” the training recommendations for these individuals changes.

The younger your training age, the less overall work I need to do per session with you, as you stand to benefit a lot from less stimuli as it’s all new to you.  We strive for the least effective minimum dosage of training stimulus, in other words. Why?

 

  1. I want you to be fresh to practice and enjoy your sport. Your strength and conditioning should enhance that; it shouldn’t get in the way.
  2. Newcomers to strength and conditioning at any age also need to train a bit longer in basic movements before they possess the necessary technique to really push themselves maximally. Thus, newcomers often can train more frequently as they aren’t able to really hit or exert maximal effort yet. Newcomers train more often, but usually in the domain of technique, all while benefiting from adaptation because the threshold is so low.  

 

PHYSICALLY DEMANDING SPORTS HAVE A LONG ADAPTATION PERIOD TO increase 'WORK CAPACITY'

Are you trying to be a two-a-day champ at the jiu jitsu academy in your first three months? I would advise you don’t do that until your body becomes very familiar with the demands of the sport, how to recover from it, and until your body very realistically “hardens”. 

Your work capacity is something that needs to be built. This means that if you are a newcomer to the rigors of training that could be considered "all out" (or maximal): many master's age athletes need to give their bodies a minimum of 6 months just to adjust to a sustainable 2-3x per week sports training schedule.  You read that correctly: if you’re new, your max effort classes should be at 2-3 times per week if you’re a master’s athlete. 

The exception to this is if you’re used to 2-a-days from high school, college, and a well rounded fitness regimen. Other examples include athletes who don't work full time, can take the day to recover, relax, and practice other good recovery rituals.  If this describes you, then you will probably adjust just fine to doing hard physical activity every day, and eventually twice per day a few times per week pretty quickly. Your capacity is there, but you’ll want to work on your recovery.

For some who compete at the highest levels of the masters divisions, and are recent carry-overs from the Adult (under 30) divisions, then it’s more or less business as usual into your mid 30’s.  But what if you started jiu jitsu at 39, or older? What if your CrossFit regimen was the first real hard training in your life and didn’t really start until 44? You have to treat your body much, much differently, starting with the advice above.

 

RECOVERY IS A SKILL

Recovery is as much of a skill as strength and your sport. The body adapts physiologically to stress. Give the body time to recover, and it adapts to be that much more ready to take the rigor of what you previously asked of it. 

It’s a simple concept that goes astray too often, and I don’t necessarily blame the misunderstanding and straying. It’s poorly understood what it means to be truly recovered.  

From a strength and conditioning perspective for the masters athlete: keep in mind that two maximal workouts per 7 day period is sufficient for most to see progress, and consequently, enough to fatigue you at the deepest neurological level. This is especially true of the amateur athlete who has to work full time, has a few nights per week of compromised sleep, commitments with family, etc.  

This doesn’t mean you can’t train jiu jitsu, or hit the gym more than 2 days per week, it simply means you need to periodize, or scale, your training on a weekly basis: 2 hard days of rolling and 2 skill & technique based days, for instance. 

What’s a simple way to know if you’re recovered? You should use your ability to move through the ranges of what’s planned that day as your first indicator. Is soreness keeping you from achieving a perfect hinge? If so, then you may need to re-arrange your workout days. After a few minutes of warm-up, is that guard pass feeling really shaky? Consider resting or reorganizing your sport training that day. 

 

RECOVERY IS AS IMPORTANT AS TRAINING

It just needs to be prioritized. Reduce stress, sleep better, and eat well 85%-90% of the time, and you will largely take care of the recovery spread. It also is immensely important that you make time for yourself. Schedule 30 minutes as frequently in a week as you can to simply be alone. If this includes your own meditation, breathing or mindfulness practice, you'll be bringing yourself to an even better place in your recovery efforts.  I've written much on this topic and will continue to, so keep an eye out for that.  Consider also adding "me time" and meditation time through things like Morning and Evening Rituals.

 

Periodization of your training and strength/conditioning program is a must.

Periodization refers to the planning and mapping involved in creating an effective workout program. Programming for athletes, especially master’s athletes, is much different than creating workouts for the average gym goer. If you practice your sport and pair that with the same routine you’ve been using for years in the gym, then you need a drastic change. Without doing so, you may be affecting your durability and performance.

You need to carefully and progressively increase your workload without overdoing it for too long and too often. Hitting it 100% every day is simply not going to cut it.

Program design is one area of fitness and strength training that is simply too personal and complex to ever write a one size fits all solution to. As such, the best solution is to seek out a skilled strength coach or trainer who understands periodization and programming for athletes. Together, you can work on a program and work together over a period of time to maximize results. The art and science of programming is where great coaches shine, as they’ve spent years and degree-worthy amounts of study on learning how to maximize performance. This is exactly the crux of my Online Training program, as this is exactly what we do with that service: periodized training programs. Check it out the services page to see if it’d be right for you.

 

Movement quality and Motor Control is equally important as training

 

For ease of discussion, I’ll break this into two camps:

If you have a long history of being involved with the sport you find yourself pursuing in your Master’s life, then you’d be wise to spend at least half your time on your strength and conditioning, body maintenance, and wellness habits.  Why? You already have a great many hours logged, reps performed, and the brain-body patterning that are required to be great at what you do. Your time is better spent making sure you’re still able to do it indefinitely. The athlete I’m describing here is often highest risk for overtraining on the mats, or kicking it in high gear too often.

If you’re very new to the sport you find yourself in (ie: under 4 years in), and already over the age of 35, then your time needs to be spent doing that sport, perfecting your movement and technique, and on your recovery habits. Don’t get confused though, you absolutely must keep up some schedule of strength and conditioning, but it should be on something that keeps you feeling fresh, loose and prepared to get back sports. Don't embark on a new program to increase your 1RM the same month you start jiu jitsu. Give it a few months to all come together and build up to it.

Moreover, strive for movement and technical fluidity and control over the ability to quickly get through something, or literally "surviving" class and/or a workout.

 

IF YOU DROP THAT WEIGHT FOR COMPETITION, YOU MAY NEVER GET IT BACK

At the risk of sounding sensationalist, I do think it’s important to point out that weight management becomes an issue for men and women as they get older. I’m not referring to eating too much or too little, but rather, bone density issues for menopausal women and the lean muscle maintenance of men over 40 that can be a real issue. 

The athlete over 40 who wishes to cut extreme amounts of weight does so inevitably at the expense of lean tissue. Estimates by reputable sources like the NSCA report that anything over 1% of total body mass loss per week is going to be more than just fat loss: it's also muscle and water. That can be consequential for a man over 40, or the woman who has a lot of lean muscle from years of training.  

The exception to this of course, is if you’re overweight or obese and you have fat to lose. If you have difficulty gaining muscle, or find yourself experiencing muscle loss, then a drastic weight cut is not your friend. Add to the fact that most people do this process rather crudely, without professional help. Be advised, drastic weight loss can affect an individual’s body at hormonal levels that can start to wreak havoc longer term if mismanaged or done too aggressively and frequently.

I’ll often hear from people who have a longer history in their sport say something to the effect of “I don’t understand, I used to be able to cut to this weight just fine.” The unsexy truth is that it’s different to manipulate your weight when you’re at a certain age, and we are always changing physically. Things change, and your practices need to also.

 

CONCLUSION

This all could apply to any athlete at any age, but it becomes especially important when you're on the other side of 30. Much of what I discussed above is geared at the grappler/martial artist, and the masters athlete who competes at weight class sports. Much of this also can be applied to the competitive CrossFit athlete too, because they are often interested in multiple physical pursuits outside the box, and finding time for it all is a task. Regardless, the point still stands that you must acknowledge that the life of an athlete has a progression, as all things do in life, and to not acknowledge that comes at your own detriment. For some, these truths may be hard to swallow, but they are recommendations meant to keep you pursuing the sports for as long as you desire, and never being forced off the mats.  Long story short: take your time, and train smart to train hard.

Weight Cutting for Jiu Jitsu: Alex Ecklin's EBI7 Weight Cut

Weight cuts, especially for jiu jitsu competitions, are a weird thing. Many (though this is changing in some competitions) have same day weigh-ins, often minutes before you start your fight. As you could imagine, this has helped to eliminate the extreme cuts you see in most MMA organizations, who weigh in days before. For same-day competitions I strongly advise people to think of the process as an aggressive “weight loss” rather than a “cut,” because in reality, you’re not doing a true "cut" in weight the week of.  

If you’re more strategic, you can maintain a weight very close to the actual division all year-round. This was the case for Alex Ecklin, a Vitor Shaolin black belt and co-owner of the school Masterskya Brooklyn. Alex fought and competed in the Eddie Bravo Invitational 7 (EBI7), as well as EBI 1. He asked me to handle his nutrition for his EBI7 fight against Baret Yoshida. No strength and conditioning, just nutrition coaching. 

Alex's Profile

Alex's diet overall consisted of quality food in a good quantity. He’d always look to eat lunch at a place like Whole Foods, or lean towards home-cooked meals when possible. This was good. The two things we had to address were:

  • What exactly to eat (and how to combine it)

  • When to eat it

The mistake most athletes make is that they either eat too much or way too little. Combat athletes tend to be more measured, or lean toward eating too little, mostly due to years of habitually eating light to make weight. Alex’s intake was close to where I would have wanted it to be anyway.

The tournament was for featherweights (145lbs), but Alex has a history of competing at even lower weight classes (135lbs).  His "walking around weight" was very close to 145lbs (plus or minus 5-6lbs on any given day). On top of that, EBI weighs in the day before the tournament, so we had a lot of wiggle room. As we only had to lose about 5-6lbs, which in truth is quite easy, we didn't have to worry so much about losing significant weight and could instead maximize his performance through the right nutrition. So for him, this wasn’t really a cut, but more of a “nutritional upgrade:” He wanted to feel better while training and in everyday life and fix what he felt was a randomness in his eating habits and nutrition. So that’s where we started, and what we accomplished.  

THE PLAN

Alex is an impressive athlete and the quintessential martial artist. The thing about working with the highest levels of athletes is that their attention to detail and drive is unmatched. When I gave Alex his plan, he snapped right to it, and understood and took to heart everything I shared with him from our initial conversation.

The highlights of our plan:

  • No “bad combinations” of food that were digestively burdensome, aka: Eat Simple

  • No eating too late

  • Adopting a schedule of eating around his teaching and training schedule


What do each mean?

Eat Simple

Eating simple is profoundly important. You need to make things easy for your body - and generally the more simple the meal, the easier it’ll be to digest. Without going into too much depth (because the topic deserves volumes), any effective nutrition and health system that I’ve encountered has echoed the idea that your plate at any given meal should not be complicated. Generally if there are over 3-4 different types of food, it’s too much.

Alex had a pretty good handle on this to start, but we brought some mindfulness to it so his meals made sense: one centered around protein, another around something more starchy and dense for energy, and another of just fruit. We didn't mix, and we didn't snack (that will happen sometimes, but we managed them).

No Eating Late

Whether you’re on an intermittent fasting diet or any weight loss plan, you shouldn’t be eating too close to bedtime, and especially not things that are too energy dense (ie: carbohydrates). In Alex’s case, we didn’t eat too late and had a cut off of at least 2 hours before bedtime. It’s a pretty simple rule that we didn't have too many issues with, but late night classes sometimes created problems. In this event, we tried to have him eat before the later trainings or classes, but afterwards was acceptable sometimes- we just let the scale and his overall feeling/performance be the guide. 

Scheduling

It was as simple as it sounded; if we could get Alex eating a few hours before bed, not too soon before training, the right mix of nutrients post-training and eliminate snacking, we'd be successful. 

That's the key here, you have to be in tune with your body and you have to talk to each other... a lot. For this, we had to let "feeling" be a guide, and this is the core of a good coaching relationship: the athlete has to feel comfortable sharing everything, but the coach has to create that environment in the first place. Then, and only then, can the coach be the coach. At that point, my job is to interpret what they're saying and know the right call to make. Scheduling when to eat in this sense, becomes more of an art.

It's important to me to empower the person I'm working with: you need to teach them how to care for themselves, be self-reliant, and to trust what they're feeling. Both Alex and I made that our mission, and in truth, because he was such a fast learner, I had to do very little. He immediately learned to trust what he was feeling and went with it. Sometimes all we need is positive affirmation in that direction, and we're off to the races. 

In Conclusion

 

Alex was on weight at least a week before the weigh-ins, so the last part of his journey to EBI from a nutritional standpoint was just maintenance. We stayed the course, with some minor alterations throughout his travels out to LA, and stayed light in the days before the official weigh-in, which he hit with ease.

If I could sum it up in one sentence: less was more, simple was better. Everything we did was simple. We literally and figuratively, cut the fat. There's a lot of advice on supplements and strange foods out there, but that stuff only is relevant if you have a good baseline. 

I hope this gave you all some idea and some positive support in handling your weight cuts responsibly and treating it like a pro. Again, I can't reiterate enough how encouraged I was to see a professional athlete shy away from barbaric methods and cuts of old and really take an optimized and measured approach. 

If you ever want to discuss weight cuts, nutrition plans for your performance optimization, feel free to check this page out or contact me!

Be well,

Mark

My Nightly Rituals for Better Sleep, Recovery, Mood and Health

About a year ago, I wrote about something that really resonated with a lot of people on my morning rituals. In many ways, it was years in the making and continues to be my practice to this day.

What about the end of my day, though (or the end of your day)? It’s equally important, as it sets you up for what is hopefully restful sleep, which is profoundly important in recovering from your training, the stress of the day, and keeping you healthy.

I believe that “winding down” is very personal, that is to say, things that relax me, may agitate you, which will create a lousy type of alertness. Thus, you should use this as a guide to give you ideas and a “jumping off” point in which you can create your own.

Here are my night time rituals, or how I end every day:

Stop working on anything 2 hours before bed (minimum)

Admittedly, it took a while for me to do this, but it is of note because I love my work and how I spend my days and professional life. For me, it’s not a stressor to be working on training programs, but if I take myself too deep into the evening doing so, I will have a very hard time shutting off my “problem-solving brain” and be very alert and awake. I won’t be unhappy, just not in a restful state, so to avoid it, I make sure I stop all real work around 2 hours before I go to sleep. I fill the rest of my evening with things that tune me down a bit: reading, laying down/relaxing, talking with my girlfriend, and watching old re-runs of the Office. ;-)

Imagine for a moment that you are the opposite: you’re stressed by work, angry you have to do the task you need to, and that it’s taking you so long. Now you have to go to sleep. Not a great state of mind...

A light-to-moderate movement ritual

I like walks in the evening, but a few nights a week, I’ll get a little more aggressive and go to a local rock climbing wall in the traditional “dinner hours" and do some climbing. It has a relaxing effect on me. It’s the opposite of traditional working out, jiu jitsu or anything full-contact, so it’s a nice reprise. Moving at the end of the day like this feels right in a way that's hard for me to quantify. I find I need it before I shut down for the day. Sometimes I’ll do yoga during these hours as well.

Walking during sunset is a powerful way to reset your circadian rhythm- the colors in the evening sunset help signal to your body that the end of the day is near, and you can start "shutting down" for the day. I highly recommend when you travel, that you spend as much time in the evenings outdoors as possible. 

For many years, I always went back and forth with how I advise clients and athletes to treat their movement at the end of the day. I’m not the biggest fan of late night workouts, because of the cortisol dump happening at a time when you typically want it gone, but I do believe that you should move around a little in the hours before you sleep. As I said, I'm sometimes at a rock climbing gym in the evening, so it's a bit of a double-edged sword. I’d cut it off 2 hours before sleep, regardless.

A Warm Shower

At different times of year, and at different times of the day, I find warm or cold exposure to be equally relaxing. In general however, a warm shower at the end of the day will help relax me a bit, loosening my muscles up, and generally just feels good. 

Aroma or Sound Therapy

I have a recent preference and fondness of aromatherapy- something about the right scent will change my mood immediately, and helps me relax, if it’s the right scent. Often times, I find we aren’t so conscious of our sense of smell unless we’re smelling something awful, so it’s nice to get a refreshing blast of something pleasant.

You may find that a white-noise machine, or some ambient sounds help you relax all the same. If you live in a noisy area, or are around droning, awful sound all day, some nice music may do the trick. There’s also a number of apps that have hundreds of sounds to choose from. 

f.lux on your phone/laptop. Better yet, ditch it all 90 minutes before sleep.

There’s a number of apps out these days that kill the blue-light and overall brightness of all the “screens” in your life. I find too much screen-time to be way too alerting to the senses. In fact, if I'm really drowsy in the morning, I'll read a few Instagram posts to wake me up, it always does the trick. So the opposite holds- don't be getting in text conversations too late in the day or scrolling compulsively through social media before you sleep.

Set your alarm for the next morning ahead of time. Do whatever you need to do to cut the phone or laptop off 90 minutes before bed.

 

Making Your Own Nightly Rituals

It's really all about finding what relaxes you and turns off what I call "the problem solving brain." That "brain" will always keep you awake and alert, and while important, also needs its rest. 

Experiment, and like anything, evolve what you currently do. Naturally, we tend to evolve things anyway, but bring some mindfulness to it, and you'll be sleeping like a baby in no time.

 

If you have any great nightly rituals, leave a comment below, I'd love to hear it!

-Mark

My Morning Rituals & How to Make Your Own

Me demonstrating the Hindu Push Up at Maui Jiu Jitsu. Photo Credit: Kristie Andreula

 

Each morning, I have a wake up ritual that I do all or most of, no matter where I am. Coming out of deep sleep is a delicate thing: from a physical, but also mental perspective. 

How often do you hear about the person (or maybe it's you) who wakes up just in time to get dressed and run out the door to catch a subway or shoot to the expressway to make it to work or school on time... barely. 

That's such a shocking way to start your day. There's a physiological response to that as well: one that you probably don't want if you're trying to maximize fat loss, maintain healthy body composition, stay primed for your best performing self.... Oh and did I mention that the scenario I described above is super stressful? 

Treat yourself a little better. That's the #1 reason to do this. We could sit and discuss the intricate X's and O's of adrenal hormone response, cortisol and fat storage, and the history of successful people and wake up rituals, but the real reason you should plan a morning ritual is because it's simply time for you.  Time you make for yourself always results in a good return on the investment: you're happier, calmer, have time to think, be more creative, etc. 

Getting beyond the physiological and philosophical reasonings and justifications, I also enjoy my routine for these two reasons:

  • The ritual itself signals to me it's time to wake up, gets me out of a groggy state, and ready to train or do whatever I need to that morning. 
  • I've found tremendous benefit mentally in waking up and not putting my mind on anything except what I'm doing to get the day started. 

 

My Morning Rituals 

 

Tongue Scrape

I always do this, no matter what. It's probably the oral health routine most people do the least, but would feel the best after doing. I use Dr Tung's metal tongue scraper, as the plastic ones never work and aren't particularly durable, and using a brush just sort of has the effect that smushing mud with your shoe into your shag carpet would. You'd be shocked and possibly disgusted as to what comes off your tongue, so it's best to get it off! I do this before drinking any water. I'll let you Google the sulphuric compounds that build up on your teeth and smell like death...

 

Brush My Teeth

This is what most people (hopefully) do anyway, but after a good tongue scrape, I brush my teeth. Self explanatory as to why, and you can debate what toothpaste you want to use. 

 

Coconut Oil Swish and "Pulling"

This is something that I've found to be the most refreshing and waking of any morning habit, and it's so easy to do! Simply take about a tablespoon of coconut oil (unrefined, extra virgin works best and is all I recommend), and swish for 15 to 20 minutes. Besides the different benefits people commonly write about across the Internet and literature of the oil pulling away impurities and acting as an antimicrobial, I find that it has the effect of "moisturizing my mouth." On the east coast, much of the year is very raw and dry, and your skin and sinuses get pretty baron. The throat is no different. The oil feels really refreshing on your gums, mouth and throat and takes away any scratchy or overly parched feeling. It's like a moisturizer for your mouth.

 

Drink a glass of room temperature water

I make sure the first thing I drink after the steps above is water: never coffee. After going about 8 hours without fluids, it's a good idea to hydrate. I also feel, intuitively, that it starts to wake up my "insides" and helps get the digestion or "elimination mechanisms" primed.  

 

My Choice Mobility Exercises

If I wanted to, I could do a movement for each joint in very little time (5-10 minutes), but usually in the morning, I do the most important areas for me: neck, shoulders, spine, hips.

Most days, after I do the specific joint mobility of what's listed above, I'll do:

  • A minute or two of Hindu Push-Ups (no rep prescription
  • A minute of two of Hindu Squats
  • 10 straight legged forward bends, bringing my forehead to my ankles.

I don't always assign rep counts, and usually go for time because I like to move until I don't hear any more crackly creeks or pops in the body or joints. That's my sign that I'm mobile and I've started to get the joints and connective tissue lubricated. 

NOTE: This is NOT a morning workout, it's simply getting my body moving and ready to move for the day.

 

Don't Eat Until Moving My Bowels

While this one may be controversial for some (or a giggle-inducer), it really shouldn't be. I was introduced to Dr John Tilden's book, Toxemia Explained a little over a year before writing this. In it, he makes the case for us essentially being digestive machines. In other words, we are only as healthy as what we can digest. When we are burdened digestively, it's not a bad idea to fast and let our body deal with what's already there. 

The logic for me in this practice is this: Most people poop in the morning, so after that morning "movement," they accumulate a whole day of eating, drinking, etc. That stuff is just waiting in que to exit the body all day. Then when you sleep, there's a host of metabolic processes that happen overnight, not to mention a nice little "gravity shift" on you when you stand up in the morning.  I like to let all this run its course, drink water (as stated above), and if necessary, some coffee for "added stimulation" to let the process happen. Then you start the day with a clean slate. You aren't piling shit on top of shit, so to speak. 

Making Your Own Morning Routine

Beyond that- it's up to you. Many people have really awesome rituals that are worth reading about, Steve Maxwell and Nikolai Amosov come to mind, but I think what's most important is just having a routine. Famously, Tim Ferriss loves to ask all his high profile interviewees about this topic, and while I do believe the best performers in the world have morning routines, that's not why YOU should- I just think it's a nice thing to do. 

 I believe and benefit from having a morning routine and I think it's less important to get caught up in the minutia of what to do, or why doing it will "put you on the path to excellence," but rather concentrate on constructing a routine that you find beneficial and puts you in your unique, calm headspace. Then, just do it.

(If you come up with a cool one, drop me a line!)

How I Got Stronger & Healthier with Less: Minimalism in Training (A Primer)

I can never blame anyone for being confused about training, strength and conditioning, or just simply “working out.” It’s a maze of information, misinformation, well-meaning advice, sensationalism, sales pitches, and smoke screens. Like all things, it’s a spectrum, though. It’s why a personal mission of mine has been to really get to the core of what really constitutes effective training. I’ve gone back and looked at the earliest forms of modern physical culture, asked some of the best minds I know, and I’m beginning to see a trend: minimalism.

Minimalism in training is nothing new, nor a stone previously unturned. Mastery of your own body and the practice of calisthenics has probably existed as long as people have been interested in maintaining and maximizing their physical health. However, outside some niche circles, it’s seldom used or advocated much as modality all of it’s own; with trainers usually opting to use it as little more than a warm-up or throw-in.

What got me here?

Since I was around 12 years old, I’ve spent long hours in gyms and used everything from the Nautilus & Hammer Strength machines to traditional barbell power lifts, cable pulleys, and every trend to boom and bust in the 15 years since. While all of these different methods of training certainly had their benefits, there was something always glaringly lacking with each. It wasn’t that I wasn’t getting a benefit from them: I certainly had periods where I had gained muscle, lost weight, got stronger, or any other desirable results you'd hope to achieve. There was always something missing though; and never was it more obvious than on a day where I’d needed to do something in my every day life that I physically could not, despite absolutely killing it that morning on the bench.

It was also funny to me that at the time, that I could be so good at using barbells, machines, and equipment of all types, but still be so poor at bodyweight movements and things like pull ups. I knew something wasn’t right, even back then. I may not have known how to fix it at 16 years old, but I certainly knew something was off.

It wasn’t until recently, with the help of Steve Maxwell’s insight and many years of meditation on the matter, that I realized what was missing for me in those days. More importantly, it became very apparent that what I was doing was getting good at Hammer Strength Machines, cable wood choppers and barbell deadlifts. The same way you get good at a submission in jiu jitsu, a throw in judo, or a jump shot on the court, was the same thing I was doing with all these movements and equipment.

SKILL VS STRENGTH - WHICH ARE YOU TRAINING?

All workout modalities, training systems, and pieces of equipment are always in danger of is becoming a skill all in themselves. It ends up resembling recreation more than it does a health system. Now, there’s nothing inherently evil there, nor is it always “one or the other,” but being mindful of this is probably what will save you from plateaus and stagnation (in an upcoming blog, I may expand on this idea).

So what is the best way to make sure you don’t master your equipment and turn your workouts into a skill session? Ditch the equipment!

Minimalism

There aren’t many circumstances or sports in which a mastery of your body, your awareness of space, and a maximization of mobility aren’t applicable. By maximizing control, strength, and mobility of your body, you give yourself the best chance to excel in anything you do physically.

There’s also a tremendous benefit in minimalism in training, as many methods of bodyweight mastery are less destructive to connective tissue, joints, etc (with some exceptions of course). Ask any kettlebell veteran to tell you about their shoulders, and many will tell you they wish they gave up the KB Snatch years ago. 

Understanding how to utilize your limbs while maintaining complete stabilization of the core, having the ability to change your level & assuming a new position from that level change, and just being more nimble and strong: that translates to... everything.

How to Train Minimally

I've found through recent experiences, that the most effective way to re-build and rapidly improve everything we've discussed thus far could be broken down to these three points: 

1. Work on Your Mobility

The best advice I can give is to give yourself requisite mobility.

The most important distinction here is to understand the difference between mobility and flexibility:

Flexibility is merely the range of motion available to you. Mobility is your ability to move yourself through the range available to you. By extension, you can use a solid mobility practice to expand and strengthen yourself through new ranges of motion. 

If you’re a completely new to this and the concept of mobility, I suggest you check out my YouTube channel and any posts I’ve written on mobility via my Instagram, as these practices can be combined to make up a nice little mobility routine for you each day. I'll also plug my email list/newsletter, as I send out different mobility videos, tips and workouts frequently, and they're only available to the subscribers. 

2. Strength Training with Isometric Exercise

 Steve Maxwell demonstrating a hip bridge isometric holding exercise in his latest video download.

Steve Maxwell demonstrating a hip bridge isometric holding exercise in his latest video download.

From there, I’d encourage you to look into isometrics. Steve Maxwell recently put out a tremendous collection of isometric exercises for the whole body in a concise, excellent video download. This would be a great starting resource.

If you've never been exposed to isometrics or static holds, it simply is the practice of assuming and holding positions until muscular failure or a predetermined time interval.  It's a great practice for those with compromised joints or other lingering injuries, especially those often attributed to "aging." The trauma is low, and results in a more economic shock to the body in the form of strength training. 

"Time under tension" is often most attributed in studies, anecdotes and gyms around the world as a great tool to build muscle (hypertrophy), and also is a way to train a solid baseline level of strength (or maintaining current levels). Learning where you're weak, especially in these positions, will tell you a lot about where you should work and focus your training, and also is a very low tech and minimalist form of strength training that can literally be done anywhere. 

3. Supplemental Strength Training (with the bare bones of "equipment")

Minimalism, particularly relying on solely bodyweight calisthenics with no equipment, leaves much to be desired in the vertical and horizontal pulling movements. For that, I would suggest acquiring a suspension device (like the TRX, or any homemade system). A good friend of mine, Scott Burr, recently wrote a great eBook on how to use perhaps the most efficient low-tech tool of all time. It's available via Amazon/Kindle.

While the suspension device may be the most portable, one of the most effective "pulling modalities" to build up to is the "pull up bar." I've never found a movement in the vertical pulling department that will teach you as much about your body, breathing, and strength as the old fashioned, pronated pull-up. 

The other beauty in the pull up, is that you don't even need a bar in the traditional sense. You need only something above your head that you're (SAFELY) able to make a grip on. In fact, as you progress and become proficient at the pull up, you may even want to add a little chaos of something a bit harder to grip.

Minimalism Training Philosophy in a Few Words...

It's only appropriate to end this "primer" as no frills as the training I'm musing on:

Make your body mobile and strong, with your body.

 

Don't Be the Victim of Bad Advice

Fitness, diet, strength and conditioning, sport and “healthy living” advice is plentiful. Too plentiful really. Even for the trained professional, it can be a lot to sift through. I’ve had to ask myself increasingly over the years how “the latest study” vibes with yesterday’s studies, if one invalidates the others, what it means for my clients, athletes and myself. I recently had a revelation while listening to an “expert” (who will not be identified), that we need to keep certain things in mind while reading any article online, listening to any podcast, or reading the extended argument in a book. To keep it brief and hopefully helpful, here are the questions I ask internally (or aloud if I’m in the author’s presence), and my thought process while I am listening to ANY advice from an expert.

Ask yourself: is this person a clinician/practitioner (aka, in the gym as a trainer or coach), or is this person a researcher/academic, a scientific data sorter, or maybe even an author/personality/blogger?

 

It’s important to understand who the person is that is conveying information. It colors the lens in which they view the world, and how to apply their interpretations of data. It’s also obviously not always so easy to stratify or categorize an individual as simply one of these types of people either: many people fall into multiple categories.

For example, I would fall under the clinician category- I’m a strength coach and trainer and while I do stay extremely active reading the latest research, I spend most of my time interacting with athletes, clients and people in the gym or on the mats. Therefore, my recommendations, and much of my experience, is anecdotal: that is to say, I go by what I see (or what I THINK I see). This doesn’t invalidate my opinion, but it’s not like I sit there and conduct double-blind placebo studies that I vet through an academic institution.  It doesn’t make my opinion invalid, but it’s also not the approach you look to in order to find out deep, scientific details.

On the other side of the coin: is your data source a researcher? An academic, in other words. Academics may find themselves constantly playing a game of X’s and O’s, manipulating variables and studying them against controls, and often times, dealing very infrequently with people; While they do have experience in dealing with test subjects, the time may be limited, or it’s not for the purposes of a particular event/sport/etc. Many times, the information they make available through their studies becomes the basis for practitioners to develop new protocols. It also works the other way around: observable phenomena on the gym floor by practitioners merits a closer look- and that’s what the researchers and academics of the world excel in.  Much of what we do in any movement, workout or sport, is a synergy between the academics and the practitioners. 

The last category worth noting is the personality/blogger/brand pusher, who is also sometimes playing the role of data sorter. These could be the most dangerous, because they’re the most charismatic, most prolific in terms of content available, and very good at conveying their points concisely: they know how to sell their words. Conversely, they have the potential to spread the most good and enact the most positive change for these same reasons. 

Don’t be afraid though: by asking a simple question, you can determine who is a positive force, and who may just be irresponsible:

Is this person an academic, or a practitioner? Do they spend time around people, or trying to use “the latest research” and ONLY “the latest research” to advance their agenda?

 

My simple takeaway is this: all diets, workouts and systems sound great until they meet their adversary, or that is to say, until they don’t work. What do I mean?

FOR EXAMPLE (this is not me putting down or advocating a certain diet, but rather me sharing a real example I’ve encountered before):

Advocating a protein-based, low sugar/carbohydrate diet is great until the excessive protein gives your athlete/client excessive gas and digestive difficulty. Then what? Are you going to keep shoving meat, seeds and walnuts down their throat until they develop IBS? The orthodoxy of a diet fad doesn’t always allow temporary detours to get you over certain difficulty. Orthodoxy is paralyzing. 

Wouldn’t you rather have someone who has experience dealing with a diverse array of people, problems, and fitness levels? More importantly, someone who isn’t going to try and shove you into a box that their brand demands?

That may be an extreme example, I’ll give you that. So more measured:

What happens if your athlete/client doesn’t fit the profile of the study’s prototypical person? Many studies, at some point, can only control so many variables related to the subjects: 

Are all the participants involved similar in body composition? Do some have a dominance of Type II fibers while others are Type I dominant? How tall are the subjects? Do they have abnormally long arms, while others have short legs (maybe this bio-mechanical difference is to blame in analysis of weight pushed/pulled, and not so much the diet, for example). 

The point I’m making here, and the point emerging overall is that: we need a synergy of all types of people in order to be successful. We also need to be smart consumers of information and ask ourselves how to better fit the information we discover daily into our lives synergistically, intelligently, and holistically.

We need the practitioners to observe a phenomena, the academics to study it, the practitioners to re-test it, and then the personalities to spread the word for the greatest good.

Those who wish to control care little for growth. Remember that.

What I Learned From My First Jiu Jitsu Competition

People of all backgrounds walk through my doors, send me emails, or ask for training advice. The secret is that the actively competitive athlete is the easy one to advise: their needs are largely defined by the sport they play. It's harder when you're either done with your life revolving around competitive athletics or you never lived that life to begin with. My best advice to this person is to always find something to train for: a marathon, 5K, rec soccer league, or competing in martial arts. 

You find out a lot about yourself through competition. Here's another secret: it's not the competition itself that brings the joy. Though winning is great, the real ecstasy-like high comes from the preparatory period: those days of training hard and watching your progress, the impeccable sleep and the energy you gain from it, the insight you get on your own personal and physical limits (or lack thereof), overcoming plateaus and the relationships you make with your teammates, classmates and coaches. It's a rich experience. 

I live what I do. I live on the advice I give to my athletes and you all: the things I write about daily and take photos of on Instagram, podcast about on Functional Meatheads, and elsewhere. I love a challenge, but like many, easily can fall into the monotony of doing whatever is required of us in life. The key is not doing this for too long, and I like to think I'm good at sensing imbalance in my life. That's why I decided to compete in the IBJJF NY Summer No-Gi. Open

The idea that I would consider my hobby of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu a good means for competition and the experiences that accompany it entered my brain pretty early in my beginnings in the sport a year and a half ago. I knew as a fumbling and clumsy white belt that I'd be on the competition mats before long, even if it meant getting triangled in the first round. 

Conceiving the idea and executing it are something entirely different however: a feeling many are familiar with. Little speed bumps happen that deter you from pulling the trigger:

"Oh, I have a trip coming up."

"Oh, I have a work thing the week before."

Anything pops up and becomes a reason not to do it.

I had my own version of this: I got promoted.

Around February of 2015, I was just starting to get comfortable with my fellow white belts and was chomping at the bits to get into the NY Spring Open that upcoming April at white belt.

One evening that month, I heard my name called at the promotion ceremony and before I knew it, was having a blue belt tied around my waist by Marcelo Garcia. 

 photo: Ric Ricard

photo: Ric Ricard

Shit. I was happy, but more so, I was scared. I felt undeserving and many emotions of uneasiness.  Feelings I usually help athletes get through in my sessions with them. It's different when it's you though. 

Almost immediately after that night, I felt insecure. I was getting to roll with higher caliber players at the academy and getting walloped. It was the same story while rolling with now-fellow blue belts. It was around this time I talked myself out of the Spring Open.

I can honestly tell you, one day removed from yesterday (my first competition), that it was the decision I regret most since starting jiu-jitsu.

Yes I would have likely lost like I did yesterday, and probably much worse.

But you know what? It doesn't matter. 

I got so much pleasure these past 5 weeks while training (often twice per day), programming my workouts for a sport I love, sleeping 8-9 hours a night, saying no to bullshit food that ends up making you feel worse about yourself, reveling happily in my rest periods, the close relationships I made with my fellow competitors, the support and encouragement I received from family and friends, and yes, even the weight cut. 

I could have experienced this all sooner, but I didn't, because I let some weird voice talk me out of it.

It was the most concentrated dose of positivity rolled into a five week period that I ever experienced. This is coming from a guy who played traveling competitive hockey from age 11. There wasn't one bit of negativity or true life stress in those 5 weeks.

I wouldn't trade it for a thing.  

I wouldn't trade it for the result either: I got triangled in the first round.

I wouldn't trade it because you have to earn the wins. They come from preparation like I described above, but also something more:  the intangibles that you only get through experience. 

Experience I'm working on and it started yesterday. 

I'd like to thank all who supported me and helped in any way along the road. Your words of encouragement are little tiny doses positivity that deeply sink into the brain and put the body at ease, giving a deep sense of feeling like you can do anything.  Words are powerful and change your reality.  There's never anything wrong with being positive, kids!

I thank you for reading a little bit about my experiences and if you have your own story, please do share below in the comments or email me, I'd love to hear it.