Fitness is Composite

As the old joke goes, the First Rule of CrossFit is: “always talk about CrossFit.” It’s a famously exercise-obsessed crowd. But from ten years of growing the largest CrossFit gym in the world, I can tell you even that group of die-hards makes it to the gym, on average, about 2.8 times a week.

Which means their other 165.2 weekly hours are spent doing something else. Put another way, what people do in the gym is less than 2% of their total time pie.

Of course, training hard has lasting effects that spill over into the rest of an athlete’s life. Beyond the psychological impacts, there’s the more concrete EPOC, or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, an afterburn of increased oxygen intake following intense exercise that raises calorie-burning metabolism for hours to come. But, by and large, exercise, even hard and relatively frequent exercise, is just one small part of the bigger picture.

Indeed, in those other 160-some hours, we eat, we sleep, we socialize, we feel stress, we sit and stand, we move or we don’t. All of which contributes to or detracts from our health and wellness. Historically, gyms have been rather narrow in their focus: they dictate what happens when you’re in them. But, to achieve a sustainable high level of fitness, you need to think about what happens outside of them, too.

Which is all to say, fitness is composite. It’s an array of elements that work together to add up to the complete whole. And, in the future, the most succesful gyms will need to help their members succeed in that holistic way – maximizing their success, improving their choices, not just when people are working out, but all 168 hours of the week.

Chucked

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According to Sturgeon’s Law, “ninety percent of everything is crap.” Frankly, I think that may be optimistic. Particularly so when it comes to new innovations. By and large, there’s a Darwinian logic to the products and ideas that exist today and have stood the test of time. Sure, I’m a technologist at heart. But I’m also far too aware that ‘new’ only rarely means ‘better.’

Consider the Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star, a classic sneaker that’s much-loved in the world of strength, for its near-zero heel-to-toe drop and its hard, minimally-cushioned sole. It’s tough to find a better shoe for pulling a max deadlift, especially anywhere near the price.

So I, and many other people in the fitness space, have been a bit dismayed to see Converse “update” the Chuck Taylor with their newly released Chuck Taylor II. Among other changes, it adds “responsive cushioning,” and thereby more or less wrecks the functionality of the original.

Converse hasn’t phased out the original Chuck Taylor – yet – though I suspect the writing’s on the wall. So stock up while you can. And also take a moment to reflect on the dangers of innovation. Sure, creative destructive is one of the best ways to fuel forward progress in the world. But not all destruction is creative, and not all of it creates progress; sometimes, it just burns something excellent to the ground.

Golden

Frequently, people tell me they want to “get in shape.” And, each time, I have to hold back the dad joke that inevitably pops to mind: “Which shape?”

Turns out, that’s not actually a ridiculous question. At least from a purely aesthetic perspective, there’s an increasing body of research backing very specific proportions as being nearly universally most attractive, across cultures. Like so much else in the world, it comes down to the Golden Ratio.

So, if you’re searching for specific workout goals, here’s the formula to look your best:

For men, your waist circumference (measured at the narrowest point, usually right by your belly-button) should be 44.7% of your height. Your shoulder circumference (measured at the widest point, usually right at the top of your armpits) should in turn be 161.8% of your waist.

For me, at a towering 5’6”, that pegs my ideal waist measurement as 29.5”, and my ideal shoulder at 47.7”. I’ve got the waist nailed, but I’m apparently an inch and change short on shoulder; time for more handstand pushups.

For women, waist circumference (similarly measured at the narrowest point, which is usually slightly higher than on men, above the belly-button) should be 38% of height. Shoulder-to-waist ratio is still 161.8%, and hip-to-waist ratio (with hip circumference similarly measured at the widest point) at 142%.

So, if I were a woman, I’d ideally have a 25” waist, a 40” shoulder, and 35.6” hip. Based on that, I make a pretty terrible woman.

But, either way, there’s your goal. If your waist number is high, fat loss is usually your best first step. Once that’s on (or near) point, your next focus is to add muscle to hit the shoulder (and, for females, hip) number. Get to work.

A Drag

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Want to take your conditioning to the next level? Get yourself a Magic Carpet Sled, stat.

Then take it outside, load on a plate or two, and run with it as fast as you can. Even 400 meters is terrible, especially after you slam past the lactate threshold about a minute in, perhaps halfway through a lap. Rest and repeat – just once or twice more – and I promise you’ll be totally cooked.

Watch This

After eleven years of CrossFitting, it’s rare for me to find some genuinely new, extremely thought-provoking ideas on improving programming. If you’re a CrossFitter, you should definitely be following Julien Pineau of Strongfit. His two-part interview on Barbell Shrugged is more than worth your time:

165

Over years of running CFNYC, we discovered that, on average, our members attended the gym about 2.8 times a week. Talking to coaches at other CrossFit boxes, to yoga, pilates and spin instructors, and to private trainers, that seems about par for the course. In a committed, workout-attending population, people seem to hit the gym about 2.5-3 times a week.

And, indeed, that’s great. If you’re smart and focused, that’s often all the gym time you need. Though that depends, entirely, on what you do with the other 165 hours of your week.

There’s an old fitness maxim: you can’t out-train a bad diet. You also can’t out-stretch days full of sitting, standing and moving in terrible posture. You can’t out-caffeinate a lack of sufficient, high-quality sleep. And your three hours at the gym are only enough if they’re just the far end of the power curve – the small percentage of time you move at high intensity, paired with the large percentage of time outside the gym in which you’re still moving, albeit at a lower pace.

The problem is, gyms aren’t really set up to address those other 165 hours. Sure, trainers and coaches will sometimes give homework; but we know from research on adherence in physical therapy that people just don’t do their fitness homework, even if it’s literally hurting them not to.

Which, I think, is an opportunity for technology. Pair a great in-gym experience with a well-crafted app that extends that experience to guide the other 165 hours of the week, while still tying back to the expert accountability and community support you have in the gym, and you’ve got a far more effective way to help people make positive change in their lives.

Manly Stanley

Coming down the home stretch of hockey season, I just wanted to pause to respect the underlying level of athleticism that hockey elites display. Sure, they make look like a bunch of toothless mooks when interviewed post-game. But they’re in amazingly, terrifyingly good shape.

In most sports, there’s a single athletic test that correlates to high-level performance. If you excel at that underlying skill, you likely excel at the sport overall. In the case of basketball, for example, it’s vertical jump. In the case of football (at least for several key positions), it’s time on the 40-yard dash.

In the case of hockey, however, the single best correlate is actually body fat percentage, above a BMI threshold. Great hockey players require a large amount of fat free mass (i.e., muscle), alongside very low levels of fat. In other words, they need to be totally jacked, more so than similarly ranked players in almost any other sport.

Watch the Stanley Cup, and show those players some respect. If not for their crazy levels of fitness, then at least for the fact that they’re literally willing to beat each other bloody for our entertainment. Now that’s commitment.

[And speaking of both violence and fitness, it’s also worth noting that the only other fitness-marker-to-sports-performance correlate I know of is between wrestling success and anaerobic power output. Which also probably explains why wrestlers have had such a great run in the CrossFit world. Kind of a consolation prize for the years we spent wearing spandex body-suits in front of high school peers.]

Supple

I’m a big fan of the Mobility WOD, Kelly Starrett’s smart and innovative approach to mobility, recovery and maximizing athletic performance.

Kelly kicked off the MWOD back in 2010, posting more than a year of short daily YouTube videos, each prescribing ten minutes of exercises to do that day. Whether stretches, rolling on lacrosse balls, or repositioning joints using plyo-bands, the stuff didn’t look like anything I’d seen, and it worked.

Using his material at the start of CrossFit classes, we managed to get people with tight shoulders into overhead or front rack positions they’d never achieved, managed to get tight-hipped folks squatting to full depth. And following Kelly’s advice myself helped me quickly rehab both a minor meniscus tear in one knee (athletic injury), and a broken bone in the other (subway accident injury).

Still, I always had difficulty recommending the MWOD, or Kelly’s subsequent book, Becoming a Supple Leopard, as a resource to people without a substantial kinesiology background. Kelly provided a lot of tools, and a lot of high level theory, but rarely straightforward solutions: ‘in case of problem x, do y and z.’

That’s why I’m particularly happy to see his newly-released Becoming a Supple Leopard 2.0. It completely reorganizes the content from his prior book around seven archetypal positions as the goals for good mobility, and lays out clear pathways towards achieving those goals, as well as clear options for addressing pain or injury at a given muscle or joint.

Alongside the release, he’s also put out a ’14 Day Mobility Challenge’, with two days of prescription each for the seven archetypes. If you’re a CrossFitter, an athlete in general, or just want to move better, check it out. In fact, you could probably get several months of progress just by repeating that two week cycle a few times through.

Thereafter, get the book. It’s a great resource, and an even more accessible one in version 2.0.

Good Day Sunshine

A weekend of summery weather, and suddenly New Yorkers are outside in droves getting skin cancer.

Or at least that’s what my mom (and much of the US health establishment) would have you believe. UV rays are carcinogenic, so you should slather on sunscreen, wear a hat and stay inside. But like many health questions, the full story of sun exposure is more complicated than the basic soundbite.

For example, on the one hand, childhood severe sunburns are associated with an increased risk of melanoma. On the other, people who work outside with a lot of sun exposure (like farmers or fishermen) actually have lower melanoma rates than indoor workers, and better prognoses when they do have melanomas.

You can find a bunch of similar evidence in both directions, because there’s an inherent trade-off in staying out of the sun. UV rays damage skin cells’ DNA, making cancers more likely. But they also help your body create vitamin D, which protects against cancer, and is hugely important to your health in a slew of other ways.

Being healthy, then, involves a Goldilocks approach to sun: not too much, but not too little, either. And in recent years, the pendulum has swung far into the shade. Enough so that scientists behind a recent literature review concluded that we need more UV:

“The overall health benefit of an improved vitamin D status may be more important than the possibly increased [melanoma] risk resulting from carefully increasing UV exposure.”

So what should we do? According to the research, being tan is healthy, but getting tan is less so, and getting sunburned is terrible. So ease yourself into the summer. You want small, regular doses of sun initially, so you can begin to tan slowly and as safely as possible. Then make sure you’re out in the sun consistently throughout the summer. Use sunscreen and cover-ups sufficient to make sure you never burn, but not so much that you reach fall as pasty-white as you doubtless are right now.

Keep Lifting

Every night, I do the dishes. And every night, I think about the Sisyphean nature of the task: no matter how well I scrub the current pile, by tomorrow a whole new stack will have accumulated nonetheless.

A lot of things in life have that ‘treading water’ quality. You do them consistently, in part to make things better, but in equal part just to keep them from getting worse. And, indeed, working out sometimes feels that way. Even as you hit a consistent streak of attendance, start to see real results, you know it’s just a matter of time until life and work and family and whatever else rages out of control, forcing you to take weeks or months off, backsliding to where you started.

Except that’s incorrect. According to some awesome new scientific findings, coming back to the gym after a hiatus is far easier than starting from scratch. Working out generates new nuclei in your muscles (called myonuclei) that help coordinate repair and growth. The new research indicates that, even if those muscles atrophy, the new myonuclei stick around for an extended period. So when you do return to the gym, you can regain strength faster than when you started out, back when you had fewer myonuclei.

Combine that with what we already know about the durability of neurologically-driven strength gains, and you have a pretty good argument for hitting the gym, as hard and as consistently as you can, even if you know you might end up with unexpected breaks in your future.