steve maxwell

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.

 

How To Increase Your Gas Tank (if you're a Jiu-Jitsu or Combat Athlete)

Photo credit:  Leon Maia

Photo credit: Leon Maia

The number one thing I hear from any jiu jitsu athlete when they're looking for strength and conditioning advice is how to improve their "cardio," or their gas tank. 

In reality, there are any number of factors that affect this (and in order to give you the best answer, I'd need to evaluate you). Any educated answer someone will give you probably will help, but realize it ALL starts with your breathing. There is no silly, exhausting circuit I could put you through, nor rope I could have you swing that will improve your cardio if you can't breathe. 

We all breathe, but we don't all breathe properly or efficiently. Many people will breathe short, "crocodile" breaths through their neck/upper chest, breathe only through their mouth, or worse, aren't breathing until absolutely vital, triggering a panic reflex that many call "the panic breath." This is problematic for many reasons, but chiefly among them is the state you often find yourself in when you're breathing inefficiently is a state of anxiety, panic or "flight."

THE DIAPHRAGMATIC BREATH


 A proper breathing practice starts with learning a proper diaphragmatic breath. You can practice this by first trying to inhale and visualize/try to fill your stomach with air. Exhale fully, pushing all air out of your stomach, visualizing and using your Transverse Abdominis and rectus abdominis as the prime movers in your effort (ie: the muscles of the stomach). 

 A progression from here is then trying to breathe through and into your stomach while simultaneously filling your chest with air. When doing so, visualize your rib cage in a true "3D manner," expanding outward from all angles (even through the back) upon inhalation. When exhaling, visualize the same abdominal muscles and be mindful of any additional muscles you may be recruiting. 

PUTTING IT INTO PRACTICE / The PROGRAM

 

Kettlebell Swing

I'm a big fan of the kettlebell swing, because in order to generate the most power, you need a fast, efficient exhalation. The only reason you see sub 150-lbs men and women swing a 32K or higher kettlebell with graceful form, explosive power, and model-like extension and thrust in their hips is because their breath garners so much power. 

You probably know how to kettlebell swing. That's great, keep doing it, but to modify the form and perfect it the way I'm talking about:

  1. Concentrate on exhaling quick and sharply through the mouth, ending in a sharp "hiss" as your hips come to a full extension at the top of the swing. Notice how in the photo above, my mouth is very clearly exhaling, almost like I'm forcefully blowing out a candle. Think of that visual: you're blowing out a candle using the breath you "collected" in your stomach at the top of the swing. 
  2. Get really good at this before continuing to my progression below. Use a lower/moderate weight kettlebell. I recommend a 35 lbs / 16 KG. Once you're efficient at that. Move on to...


Breathing Ladders 

A ladder set can best  be described as an ascending rep scheme that follows a pattern. For example, and for our use, we're counting up to 15 reps, starting with 1 rep on the first set, 2 reps on the second, 3 on the third, etc. After you've completed set 15, you've completed 120 total repetitions. 

"The Breathing Ladder" protocol is where we put our breath efficiency to the test. Between each set, you may only take the amount of breaths that you performed in each set.  So it looks something like this:

1 swing- place KB down- 1 breath
2 swings- place KB down- 2 breaths
3 swings- place KB down- 3 breaths
Etc. until 15 swings/15 breaths 

The breaths can be at any pace, but you cannot take more breaths than reps you performed that set, and they must be deep, diaphragmatic breaths. I like to place my hands on my stomach, near my obliques, to ensure I'm getting the full three dimensional breath. 

REGRESSIONS/ALTERNATIVES

If the kettlebell swing is contraindicated for you or not quite your wheelhouse, you can regress it to the hip bridge. This is a great way (and really the true starting/novice move to learn it on) because you'll be breathing on your back, which many find is the best way to learn breathing diaphragmatically.   The protocol is the same otherwise: use the ladder technique. 

I'll get into further progressions from here in later articles, but all the strength coaches out there can certainly see the endless possibilities you can use with advanced athletes and trainees. 

Lastly, I'll close by saying these workouts, especially the diaphragmatic breaths and hip-bridges, don't seem like grueling workouts. They aren't. They weren't designed to be that way. This is essentially retraining your body to do something it should be doing properly, but somewhere it went awry. You'll begin to notice the benefits of these techniques on the mat, when you gas-out less, and when you hear your opponent breathing heavy and hard, but you're calm and relaxed, despite being the victim of their side control. 

Think of your current lung capacity like a powerful V8 engine. Big engines use lots of gas. If you're not breathing, you're not giving that V8 engine any gas. Cars with no gas are useless.

So do you really need to be flailing ropes around until you're blue in the face if you're not breathing? That's actually probably why you're blue in the face.

- Mark

Note:  Because of the demand and interest, I am developing an online course on this very subject. It's available for pre-order now by clicking here or visiting the DiSalvo Performance Academy.

For another great companion to this workout, I highly recommend Steve Maxwell and I's video on Breath Control Workouts and old Russian breathing techniques. You can grab that here

New Video with Steve Maxwell: Breath Control Workouts

I was pleasantly surprised last night to see the video that Steve Maxwell and I shot in San Diego back in March was posted to his website.  

If you listen to Functional Meatheads, you've heard me break it down a little, but this workout is all about breathing, specifically "hypoxic breathing." It's intended to help you get rid of "panic breaths" - those short, crocodile breaths - that are usually present when you're scared, tired, or in a state of alarm. It's for this reason that this workout is phenomenal for athletes of any contact sport, specifically combat sports. In reality though, any mindful athlete could watch this and absorb and apply it to their body and sport.

We accomplish this training through 4-5 simple exercises with a novel take on breathing and breath timing. Sound cool? It really is! I'll write more on breathing techniques in future blogs, as it's a topic I have an odd passion for. 

Check it out the trailer above on YouTube, and if you're interested, hit up Steve's website here for a copy. It's only $10, but well worth it if you want some great info (and to see me squirm while holding my breath).