Tag Archives: Fitness

The Logic of Movement

movnat-cat I saw the cat picture to the left on Reddit with the title “We actually had to help him down… Idiot”.

This immediately reminded me of the several discussions I had with Josh about movement (motivated by his work with MovNat).

There are many times in jiu jitsu that I have put myself in a position where I felt very much like the cat in the picture, wondering (1) how the hell did I get here and (2) how the hell do I get out of here?

Kinematics of Humanoid Robots

Relevant side note on my work in computer science: While I don’t build humanoid robots myself, a lot of the research I do brushes up against the immense challenges of programming the kinematics of movement. It’s always humbling to learn all the things that the nervous system takes care of without requiring active cognitive input from us. A lot of the stuff you (as a human being) take for granted (in terms of how you, for example, pick up a cup of coffee) is actually accomplished by an incredibly complicated system. Most of the details of voluntary movement are handled just below the level of consciousness. You just think “raise arm” and your arm goes up.

Learning to Walk Again

In jiu jitsu, we have to return to some of the same problems we had as toddlers when learning to walk. You have to once again actually start actively thinking about minute movements. You have to start thinking about where every part of your body is, and how to get from one point to another against a resisting opponent. Of course, if you have to think about it, it probably means you are going to move very awkwardly. After you solved a particular movement problem in your head many times, it starts slowly drifting below the surface of consciousnesses where it becomes more instinctual and less “cognitive”.

So, in the above example, the cat might put itself in that tricky tree situation a few times, and learn either not to go into that position any more or figure out a chain of movements that get it out of that situation in a safe and consistent way.

Practical Movement in Sport

The discussion Josh and I had that was particularly relevant was “arguing” about what sport trained you to be agile in the widest variety of practical movements. Gymnastics was the one we agreed on. I think that in jiu jitsu it can be easy to narrow your range of movement to just your particular “A game” and in so doing makes you less able to deal with tricky situations that your opponent might put you in by exploiting a moment’s error. Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way, if you open up your game (in terms of movement) when drilling and training.

MovNat and Ginastica Natural

I think MovNat is motivated in part by this goal of helping you train a wide range of practical movements that you might not always get to train when focused on a particular aspect of your jiu jitsu game. Of course, it has a few other philosophical underpinnings outside the scope of this post, like keeping the workout fun, interesting, and goal-oriented.

At one of Saulo Ribeiro’s seminars I attended, Saulo emphasized the effectiveness of dynamic movements outside the scope of your jiu jitsu game. His favorite approach was something called Ginastica Natural, but I think there’s probably a lot of different programs of that kind all governed by a focus on a wide range of efficient movement.

Marcelo Garcia on Training for Competition

Marcelo Garcia put up a training discussion video on his site a few months ago, and I just came across it again on YouTube. He highlights the difference between going hard and going REALLY hard to the point where it essentially becomes a conditioning session:

I think that we (me and people I talk to or train with) often confuse the concept of “going 100%”. What does that really mean? You might think it means going as hard as you would in competition. But what does THAT mean? Do you really go all-out in competition, never resting, never pausing? In competition, you want to attack aggressively but you also want to not waste any energy and find safe spots to rest up for another burst of aggression. The ultimate goal in competition is to get a submission and score a bunch of points along the way. No part of that requires you in every case to push the pace to where your heart rate is at a constant 200 bpm.

But in training for competition… it may be beneficial to push the pace beyond what you would do in a tournament, to go to exhaustion in the first 2 minutes, hit the wall, and keep going. The things you’re working on are:

  1. Improve your mental ability to ignore the panic that comes with shortness of breath.
  2. Improve your ability to attack with good technique while exhausted.
  3. Ensure that your basics (e.g. elbow discipline, good base, good posture, grips) don’t break down when you’re exhausted.

110-percentThe intensity Marcelo goes at in the above video I’ve never seen him do in competition. It would be reckless and risky if he did. But in training it would help improve his conditioning. For many of us who don’t do 3-4 separate conditioning sessions a week, we have to incorporate the conditioning as part of the jiu jitsu training.

So, let’s call competition intensity as “going 100%”, and the type of non-stop intensity Marcelo shows as “going 110%”.

So how and when to train 110%…?

I think that depends on your personality, your gym, and your training partners. In the end it’s always up to you. Even if you do a “competition team training” session, there’s no one who will know that you weren’t going 110%. It’s up to you to make yourself hit the cardio “wall” and push beyond it.

Honestly, sometimes all it takes is one roll for me to hit the wall the first time. For example, I often roll with a blue belt, let’s call him Genghis Khan. He is very technical and can be very aggressive, especially when his guard is being passed. He is willing to take himself to his cardio limit and in so doing forces me to do the same.

It takes a lot of mental energy to “go 110%”. No coach can force you to take it to the limit (queue the music). When you come up against that feeling that you have to slow down, that’s when it’s up to you to not slow down. Forget the fact that there is still 40 minutes of training left. Forget the fact that not slowing down means you might get swept, passed, submitted. I try to think of it as a conditioning session and a mental training session, not a jiu jitsu match.

I personally prefer to throw in such training sessions whenever I’m mentally up for it. I find that if I had to stay up real late for work and so didn’t get much sleep that I can’t quite push myself in the right way while still staying positive and focused. If jiu jitsu is your life, then a better idea would be to organize regular 110% training sessions with higher ranks.  But again, no matter how many hard training sessions you organize, it’s always up to you to push yourself to the limit. The only person who’ll know that you coasted is you.

For me, the battle is first and foremost with my own weak-ass mind. Almost like a muscle, it requires training, and grows weaker if neglected.

Theories on How to Lose Weight, Gain Strength, and Win Grappling Matches

Theories about how to get good at a grappling sport are as widespread as theories on how to lose weight, how to pick up chicks, and how to win an argument. Probably the only ingredient that’s consistent among winners in competitive fields is that they have a singular focus and obsession with always improving. The specifics can vary drastically.

The Truth is That There is No Truth

The-Great-War-on-FacadesAny one individual who has achieved success will usually tell you a specific set of steps to follow so that you too can achieve success. Naturally, they base their theories on what worked for them. Or they will base their theories on some statistical arguments on “what works for most people”. The problem, of course, is that most people never rise above mediocre, so the statistics are less quantitative and more anecdotal  We might as well be using astrology to design your training program.

The following are some brief comments on different approaches and theories I’ve encountered. It is my sincere belief that you can use any of them and achieve success. You can pick one and stick with it. You can keep switching. You can spend 2 hours a day or 10 hours a day. There are no “right” answers, and if statistics tells us anything it’s that you will probably fail, eventually giving up and switching to another set of goals. If those goals don’t have to do with family, friends, and/or survival, then you’ll be fine. The only reason I recommend sticking to the same goal is because I believe that it’s ultimately the most rewarding path. It seems that the more time you spend working at something, the more you enjoy every little step of progress.

Theories on How to Get Good at Grappling

  • Scientist: Meticulously track how every change in your training regimen affects your development. The goal is to maximize improvement over a fixed (often highly limited) amount of time. This develops a great technician.
  • Soldier: Follow the training regimen prescribed by a coach without exception. The goal is to do everything you’re told no matter how difficult. This develops a mind that can’t be broken with a high-pace or any other mental challenges.
  • Free spirit: Follow no regimen at all. Simply live on the mat, and enjoy the hell out of every minute. Drill rarely, flow roll all day.

Theories on How to Lose Weight

The example diets below are just the shallow gist of each diet and are not intended to be all-knowing generalizations.

  • Stick to Your Kind: Eat only one kind of food, or restrict one kind of food. Examples are no-carb or low-carb diets (e.g. Atkins) or all fruit diets (e.g. fruitarianism30 bananas a day).
  • Portion Control: Count calories, and don’t eat more than a certain amount (e.g. Weight Watchers).
  • Healthy Rules: Basic rules to follow in order to avoid “bad food” and get more “good food”. Usually some kind of story is woven around it to make the rules seem very reasonable. Examples include Paleo diet, low-glycemic diet, raw food diet, volumetrics, etc.

Theories on Strength and Conditioning

The following are various approaches on improving strength and conditioning outside of doing the actual activity you’re training for (e.g. grappling).

  • Olympic Lifting and Power Lifting: Go heavy or go home. Focus on big full-body lifts that focus on “slow” strength such as squats, deadlifts, bench, rows, or explosive lifts that focus on power such as snatch, clean and press, jump squats.
  • Functional Strength: Put the fun in functional. Use just the weight of your body, and not much more for full-body endurance exercises that challenge your body in a way that’s more naturally applicable to the specific sport. Obviously this includes a wide range of approaches from yoga to Herschel Walker’s 1000 pushups a day to MovNat to kettlebells.
  • Interval Training: Do something intense (e.g. sprint) that takes your heart rate to 180+ for X seconds and spend the next Y seconds trying to recover. Repeat until you want to die. A good split for X/Y is 20/10.
  • None: Don’t do any strength and conditioning. If you want to be good at a sport, just play that sport, A LOT.

This was a long post, and you probably learned nothing. That’s the point. It takes a long time to learn anything in these endeavors and years down the line you’ll just might  figure out that you were doing it all wrong. Good luck!

MovNat for Jiu Jitsu

I was introduced to an interesting approach to fitness called MovNat by Josh who had an weekend experience with it recently. As a former addict of heavy weight training, I have chosen (over the last several months) to hop onto the Marcelo Garcia path of no strength training or cardio outside of jiu jitsu. This has worked well for me, but I do think there is value in mixing things up with fun bodyweight circuits of any kind. MovNat provides exactly that. It emphasizes natural movements of the kind you would use if you were just a monkey moving about in a jungle or a little kid moving around the playground.

Like many fitness programs that my former meathead self would surely make fun of, this one sounds like it would not be challenging at all. But, of course, it can be. You are focusing not on the present fact that your muscles are burning but on achieving specific tasks like climbing across a tree branch without falling, jumping from rock to rock, etc.

I only did two sessions with Josh, but I can already see that the part of MovNat most applicable to jiu jitsu is the improvisation I’m required to do using natural movements to deal with particular tasks. There are a LOT of ways to move when I’m passing guard, for example, and the idea of constant effortless movement is essential for keeping the opponent on defense for long periods of time. MovNat has the same structure. I’m faced with a new challenge every 1-5 seconds and have to transition into it while constantly moving with good posture, awareness, balance, etc.

Is Mat Time Always Better Than Strength and Conditioning?

Training, diet, lifestyle, it’s all a damn mystery. Every decade a new commonly-accepted wisdom comes out. The only thing I’m fairly certain of is that you need water and sleep, and even that seems to be optional for the tougher specimens of our species (aka collegiate wrestlers).

Anyway, I read an interview recently with someone big (I think Fabio Gurgel) where he said that strength and conditioning is never better than mat time (drilling, positional sparring, competition training). However, he continued to make the argument that you still should do strength and conditioning to prevent burning out mentally.

I like that philosophy. Strength and conditioning is the thing you do to spice up your relationship with jiu jitsu. At the end of the day, technique will conquer all, and you won’t learn technique running on a treadmill. But we are not robots, and can’t do the hard boring thing every time. We need to do the fun things as well.

Epilogue: Have you ever written something full of contradictions, and at the end you are not sure you agree with any of it? Well that’s what this blog post is for me. But I think the internal conflict I have on the subject represents something: the fact that it’s not easy to design the perfect training regimen under the constraints of real life and real mind.

Major Competitions Help Me Ask Tough Questions

I’m quickly realizing why competing at large events such as Worlds is great for my development as a jiu jitsu player. In the last month, I was often struck by the thought that “holy crap, I’m going to have to fight in a division of 120+ guys very soon” and “holy crap, is this guard pass going to work on everyone?” and “holy crap, am I doing the right things to improve my cardio?”

I’ve been asking a lot of tough questions of myself, both big and small. Everything from “why am I doing jiu jitsu” to “where do I most prefer to grip on a toreando pass”. Just like deadlines help me be more productive at work, major competitions help me ask the tough questions of my training, technique, and general approach.

You don’t have to be honest with yourself when you’re training, but when you’re competing, your opponents will force reality onto you. They will reveal the holes in your game, in your mental fortitude, in your strategy. There is no hiding from the truth on the competition mat.

So with the Worlds lurking in the near future, I’ve already become a much better and smarter jiu jitsu guy. I have a lot of changes planned for my training over the summer that will make me much better. Of course, I’m not changing anything in now in the weeks leading up to Worlds, but I’m planning a lot of things for afterwards.

Plus, all the big names in jiu jitsu are putting out interviews and videos of things they are doing to prepare for Worlds. All these resources make my planning for the future that much easier. For example, check out a fun and intense cardio session with some BJJ killers like Andre Galvao, Rafa Mendes, Gui Mendes, etc:

There are a bunch of little changes I am going to implement after Worlds. But the big one is definitely more drilling. I already drill a lot, but I’m planning to take it to another level over the summer. I want to have flawless fundamentals and that requires tens of thousands of reps.

Injuries Before Major Competitions

It seems that jiu jitsu and judo athletes get injured at a higher rate closer to major competitions. Partly, this is just a matter of misperception, since what probably happens is that athletes complain about their injuries more publicly leading up to tournaments. This is because they are more disappointed at the possibility of their injury preventing them from competing. And in the modern day and age, when you’re disappointed, you turn to Facebook 😉

However, there’s probably some reality to this observation as well. For example, in a  attempt to improve my cardio, I have started doing more sprints, hills, and steps than I would ever do before. I turned up the intensity on this cardio-training as well. As a result, a few slips ups here and there have led to little issues with my knees, lower back, ankles, and toes. Any of those little tweaks could’ve been major injuries with some small likelihood.

It seems that the solution is to be very smart about how I turn up the training. I don’t push myself into new things when I’m exhausted, and I don’t try stuff that my muscles are not ready for. For example, I haven’t been doing Olympic lifts, and while they are a great heart-rate-raising exercise, this is not a good time to get back into doing them.

Also, I should mention “mental injuries”. It’s important not to burn out. I have to work a lot every day (as most of us do), and turning up training in any way can certainly be destructive to my motivation to compete. There is about 9 days left before Worlds, and I have certainly felt a few moments where I’m sick of jiu jitsu. It’s a fine line to walk. I have to remember that I have no chance of winning unless I step on the mat on May 31 truly excited to compete. If I’m too stressed, dreading it (in a negative way), and just want it to be over with, I might win a couple matches, but I will not be able to beat the tougher guys.

To beat the best of a big division, I have to really want it, and for that I have to remain injury-free, both physically and mentally.

Now, back to work… I have so much left to finish today… Sigh.

Get Sleep Not Rest

Michael Arnstein is an ultrarunner (runs ultramarathons and longer distances) and like most ultrarunners is a facinating person to read, listen to, and learn from. Here is a good lecture from him on some details of why he runs, his diet, his motivation, his routine, etc:

There are a lot of things mentioned in this video that I’d like to comment on at a later time, but there is one thing he said that really struck me. Michael said that his main challenge in his running life and the most important part is getting enough sleep. He said that if he gets 10 hours of sleep the night before a run, he can run any distance without a problem.

He drew a distinction between rest and sleep. He said that a lot of runners tend to taper before a race. Tapering is reducing the training mileage as you approach the race, so your body is sufficiently recovered and well rested. He suggests that this is a crappy alternative for simply getting a full night’s sleep night after night, and most importantly the night before a race. You may agree or disagree with that idea, but one thing is for sure, most of us recreational athletes do not get enough sleep, and I would venture to guess that most professional athletes do not get enough sleep either, especially before a big competition.

That served as a reminder that I need to take sleep, not rest, more seriously. And also, if I know that I have to wake up at 6am for a tournament next weekend, I better be waking up at 6am for many consecutive days before then.

Anyway, I’m officially declaring to myself as a goal that I’m going to get at least 6 hours of sleep every night for the month of May, and shoot for 8 hours as often as possible. You should do the same.

Gyms with Saunas in Philadelphia

There are a bunch of methods for cutting water weight for night-before weigh-ins. It seems the golden standard is sweating it out at a sauna. I hate this method, I prefer running (or any kind of exercise) in a sweatsuit instead, even if it kills my legs. I won’t get into why here, but suffice it to say that I like being in discomfort while doing something as opposed to not moving and not doing anything.

That said, the big weight cuts (which I try to avoid for dear life) seem to require at least some sauna. So, I decided to compile a list of gyms in the greater Philadelphia area that I know have saunas.  The list is small now, but I’m hoping to get some more suggestions from people. Please leave a comment if you know of another gym in or around Philadelphia that has a sauna.

I also created a custom Google map of gyms with saunas in Philadelphia. Check it out.

Fitness Works
714 Reed Street, Philadelphia, PA 19147

City Fitness
200 Spring Garden Street, Philadelphia PA 19123

LA Fitness
2425 South 24th Street, Philadelphia, PA

Weston Fitness
1835 Market Street, 2nd Floor, Philadelphia, PA 19103

Don’t Watch the Clock

When I competed at the NY Open this weekend, I was twice caught in a realization that I was winning and that there was very little time left in the match. I didn’t start stalling but I was distinctly aware of the thought that I don’t need to score any more points. “Don’t take risks” I thought. What that amounted to was “don’t do anything”.

Depending on your personality, the pressure to win can be counter-productive in the long term, and for me, it very much is. Let me explain…

Looking back at the matches I lost over the last two years, I lost because I didn’t want to “take risks” or (more clearly) I didn’t believe in my technique. That mindset leads to a lot of wins by 2 points, by 3 points, by 5 points. At the brown and black belt level, that’s a solid performance. At the blue belt level, to me, that’s an embarrassment. The good guys in my division submit everyone (including other good guys), except for the 1 or 2 people with whom they have a close war. That’s who I want to strive to be.

When I’m up by 2 points, I want to strive for 2, 3, 4 more points. I want to work for the submission, even if that means I lose the match. Because if I am content to win by 2, I will never develop into the kind of competitor I want to be on the mat.

What’s needed: A supreme confidence that my cardio and guts is tougher than my opponent’s.

How to achieve it: Push myself past the limit of exhaustion often though training, through running, through anything. In other words, refuse to quit. It’s easy to say, hard to do. But I can say that I’ve begun seriously working on it, and will be ready for Worlds.