Sunday, April 25, 2010

Optimization - the Ancient Chinese Secret?

Tell me what this sounds like to you....

A system of training that progresses from very thoroughly developing systemic mobility, to spinal alignment, to breathing, to foot/leg/hip power, to leg-waist-spine-arm coordination, to foot-leg-waist-spine-arm sensitivity & responsiveness.

It is a system that both prehabilitates and rehabilitates. There are no shortage of populations (from the feeble to the fighters) worldwide that have benefitted from its practice, its study, its total application.

Sound like Hardstyle with the FMS fusion? It is.

Know what else it is? Yang style Tai-Chi.

Just like Fast & Loose, there's a heavy emphasis on not just creating muscle relaxation, but maximizing it! Just like Super Joints and Relax Into Stretch, there's a fundamental emphasis on maximizing powerful, effortless range of motion. Just like the RKC principles, there's a solid dedication to developing a strong, powerful base from the waist down in order to be able to most efficiently utilize the upper body to issue power.

My father first introduced me to Tai-Chi when I was 10 years old. He studied a Yang style Tai-Chi derivative from one of Prof. Cheng Man-Ching's students, named Master Chao. [For those of you who are unfamiliar with Prof. Cheng Man-Ching, his writings on Tai-Chi, Chinese culture, martial arts, and human development are extraordinary. I've included a link to a compilation of his writings below.]

I remember watching the slow-motion movements one morning and trying in vain to stifle my laughter. As a youth, I was more visually familiar with the hard-fast, bone crunching power that karate or "external" kung-fu systems demonstrated. So seeing him move in what seemed like ridiculously slow motion was utter hilarity to me at the time.

Knowing the mind of his son, my father stopped training and confidently asked me to punch him in the face as hard as I could. With a challenge like that, almost no boy will back down, and I shot a fist out with all I had. What happened next blew my mind.

Without using rigid force, he deflected my fist without blocking, keeping the muscles of his arm and shoulder very relaxed. When I thought I was sure to make contact with his face, I instead fell forward off balance into an upward armbar and then was launched across the room.

That was almost 30 years ago.
After that, I was hooked. I learned all that my father had to teach me about Tai-Chi until I headed out to LA for college. Shortly after arriving in Pasadena, I was fortunate enough to meet and train under Prof. Daniel K. Lee, a former Bruce Lee student who was also one of North America's preeminent Yang style instructors. I've had a few other influences since then, but my father & Prof. Lee were my two main teachers in that system of martial arts.

Fast forward to the present....

Working on rehabilitative issues & strength challenges that I've been trying to overcome, I keep coming back to the ideas of "best training methods" and optimization. My mentor, Gray Cook, speaks volumes about "authentic movement", and the more I research his teachings, the more I keep getting drawn back to my original martial arts training with my father and my earliest Sifus (masters).

The countless hours of Shaolin & Tai-Chi training that I'd received in my teens and twenties set the stage for my body to be able to achieve what it did in more recent years. However, I'd lost sight of that. I'd lost sight of the deep relaxation practices that had kept me healthier, the incredible joint mobility routines that had kept me agile & flexible, and the incredible movement patterning drills that had made me function, flow, fight, and feel like an animal.

Don't get me wrong.

RKC style training did a LOT to improve my functionality, but I've been beating my head against a brick wall lately. The FMS principles kept pointing me towards something different than what I was doing (which was trying to improve my Press by just working my Press MORE), but I wasn't completely sure about what I was looking for or how to achieve a change in my state of being & performance. I did know that emotionally & spiritually, I sorely missed martial arts training.

So a few weeks back into more focused martial arts training, I went back to revisit the kettlebells. For the first time in months, the right shoulder didn't hurt with a 24kg kettlebell strict military press. I didn't do many reps or push the load past the 24kg mark, but simply being able to move that weight without having to wince or grit my teeth was a major improvement.

Additionally, I'd been spending more time on getting treatment (soft tissue & joint mobilization) as well as working on corrective exercise patterns. The areas that seemed to need the greatest focus and yielded the greatest improvements were those that seemed to point me straight back to traditional martial arts stance & flexibility training.

One of the biggest insights I've had lately revolved around the Yang style "front stance". The proper hip positioning for this fundamental stance, in conjunction with the proper weight distribution & spinal alignment, is essentially the same as the FMS half-kneeling corrective position.

The Tai-Chi & Chi Kung breathing progressions I learned from my father almost 30 years ago are essentially the same as those that I'm learning from Gray Cook, Brett Jones, & Dr. Lee Burton as far as crocodile breath patterns for neurological resets.

What does this all mean? Is the old-school Chinese martial arts training better than the FMS or the RKC methods?

To quote one of my most beloved mentors, Prof. Roy Harris, the real answer is "It depends"...... depends on your goals, depends on what you're coming to the table with, and depends on the timeline and means you favor to achieve your goals.

For me, the traditional martial arts of ancient times & the modern RKC-FMS marriage that is the CK-FMS system fit together like a hand in a glove. It's not a question of which one is better than the other. It's knowing how to use approaches from both that will give me (or my clients) the best possible results at any given moment, depending on the pre-existing conditions. At this juncture in time, restoring my combat skills abilities while simultaneously improving my functional/fundamental movement patterns is at the top of my list. And traditional martial arts training is what's helping me get there fastest.

Would it be easy to go back to focusing my training on strength with kettlebells?  Absolutely. But the better question would be, "Would it be intelligent for me to focus on weight training of ANY sort at this time with my movement screens looking the way they are now?"

Remember that ANY tool is good or bad only in the sense that it's either appropriate or inappropriate for use in a particular context. And sometimes, we already have the tools we need right in front of us. We just need the occasional reminder from something "new" to teach us how to appreciate something "familiar" in a new light!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Step back to leap forward - Is it Strength you're building or just more Compensation?

You know it's time to update the blog when someone who doesn't read blogs very often asks you what's up with your lack of blog updates. I've been called out & guilty as charged, so here it is... The latest of what's been brewing on my mind & consuming my efforts in the field of human performance lately.

As many of you know, I've had YEARS of problems with my shoulders in some form or another. It started being obvious to me in high school while playing tennis. Practicing hours & hours of serves in the attempt to have a Boris Becker-like cannon and hours of groundstrokes led to a right arm that would essentially go dead after a set of matchplay just before tennis season started during my senior year. Being a right hander, that made serving, volleying, & my beloved forehand harder & harder. So I'd play matches just gutting through the pain, willing my right arm to whip through the strokes, clutching the racquet grip as hard as I could since I often couldn't feel it. The rotater cuff muscles had essentially gotten so swollen that they were cutting off nerve signal and blood flow to the arm. But I didn't know that at the time. I just wanted to play.... desperately.

With that kind of debility, it's little wonder that after high school, I decided to go deeper into another love of mine - martial arts. The full body training I'd found in martial arts such as Northern Shaolin kung-fu put me through different ranges of motion that I'd not trained before, developed stability through stances I'd not really practiced before, and forced me to use both my left and right sides like other prior physical pursuits had not.

Tai-Chi gave me yet another training factor to benefit my body by ratcheting down the speed to super slow-mo and forcing me to pay extra attention to efficiency and softness in my movement, as well as the correctness of my trajectories. I'd done Tai-Chi with my father as a boy, but focusing on it in a more formal manner during my college years made me realize how difficult it can be to let go of muscle tension that we don't need. It forced me to examine what the difference was between being "powerful" and being "rigid" - a lesson that I'm going back to re-examining now thanks to conversations about Z-Health that I've had with Kenneth Jay, Master RKC.

POWER is generated by a change in force (or muscular tension) over time. So the less tension you start with and the more tension you can consciously generate over the smallest possible time frame is your key to being powerful. The maximum change in tension over the shortest amount of time equals your power output.

But pain messes with your nervous system's ability to both relax and to tense. It leaves you in neuromuscular limbo with "guarding" tension that's not so useful when you want to move, want to perform, want to lift, want to fight, or want to really live. That guarding tension starts to create immobility in an area or system that's been injured or threatened, forcing the neighboring joints to try to create more range of motion in order to preserve general task ability.

Such neurological flip-flopping is a damn slippery slope to be on. It's one thing to be able to flip-flop the functionality of any given joint based on your position in relation to the ground or based on intention. Good athletes NEED to have that skill. Just look at any gymnast, grappler, tactical operator, dancer, or martial artist! But when a joint gets locked into one function - hypermobile or mobility-compromised - it's ugly... and usually painful.

Can we compensate around such injuries? SURE!

We do it all the time. And just because you CAN do something, doesn't mean that you SHOULD do it. FMS founder, Gray Cook says, "You might be able to fake and lie your way through the entire Functional Movement Screen by doing every movement with maximal feed-forward tension and denying that you're in pain on every step, but what's your goal? Is your goal to cheat the screen, or is your goal to perform better in your chosen sport and move better in your daily life?"

Honesty's sometimes a hard pill to swallow. For me, I've been so thrilled with some of the improvements in strength that I've made over the years with my strength thanks to the RKC Hardstyle training method that I've allowed myself to, as Master RKC Mark Reifkind puts it, "live in my sport". Having had countless neck & shoulder traumas thanks to martial arts training, especially from the one system I love most - Combat Shuai-Chiao, I've been building my house of strength on a foundation of sand.

I won't lie. Sometimes we fall in love with what (or who) might not be best for us.

It's that way with me & Combat Shuai-Chiao. In all the years I've done martial arts, nothing gives me a greater thrill than having a format to be able to kick, punch, throw, and lock like I do in Shuai-Chiao training. Throwing someone through the air at high speed with amplitude & spin is a rush. And being able to be thrown that way and to hit the ground with a successful breakfall is a rush too. Knowing that the untrained recipient would likely either die, be incapacitated, or seriously injured by a throw that you just stood up from is a rush like no other. Yes, that's me hitting the sand in the pic below.

The only experience I've ever felt like it is going at high speed with live blade double swords with my Krabi-Krabong teacher in Thailand on my last day of training and emerging without a single cut or scrape.

Pressing a 32kg kettlebell is a similar rush. When you've gone from barely being able to hold your tennis racquet after the first set to being able to strictly military press a 70lb kettlebell overhead, it's a rush. No lie. When I walked into Tait Fletcher's Undisputed Fitness in Santa Fe, NM, this past winter, the first thing I did when I saw the kettlebells was walk up to the biggest one I saw (a 32kg) and strict pressed it without even taking my jacket off. Strength is a calling card that lends instant credibility to whatever you're going to say.

But when I tried to up that press strength to tackle the 36kg kettlebell, I ran into problems. The right shoulder that had benefitted so much from the strength training of the RKC method and FMS corrective exercises started hurting more & more. The left arm started experiencing weird strength losses at the RKC II in February after doing VO2Max Viking push-pressing. Luckily Master RKC & CK-FMS creator Brett Jones was there to have a look at me and gave me the most sensible explanation yet. The brachial plexus was getting impinged by my scarred-up deep neck muscles that were irritated by the repeated stretch that was happening at the bottom of the re-rack, and that was severely dampening the motor signal to my left arm. Not a good sign.

You know you own something when you can step away for it for a long while and still do it. It's that way with riding a bike, right? And it's that way with any skill set that your nervous system completely owns in an uninhibited fashion. Injured, sick, sleep-deprived, or inebriated, I can do this one Shaolin hand set and not miss a single movement. There have been entire years (or a few years) that have gone by when I haven't done even 1 rep of this set, yet it's still mine. It's still part of me. And that same thing should be the case with my press. If I can press a 32kg kettlebell one week, and then can't press a 16kg without pain the next in the absence of a traumatic incident occurring in the meantime, I don't own that 32kg press. Do I?

I could be stubborn and just build more on top of more, but then I'd be building more guarding and compensation on top of pre-existing guarding and compensation. So what would happen? As soon as I stop practicing it, my body will reject the load movements that I placed on it. In other words, the pressing strength will shut itself down... as it has in my case.

So I'm having to backtrack a little. It's frustrating to have to put yourself in the remedial education room when you wanna go out & play with the other kids, but I've learned that I'm not a kid any more and I've got an international spotlight shining on me. My time for gross irresponsibility is long over, whether with myself or others. And my first and primary responsibility is to be the best father I can be for my son. If I can't play with him or protect him because my shoulders are in too much pain, what kind of father would I be?

What's on the agenda for my rehab? Go back to what Gray Cook always talks about with ANY discussion about human function.

What's the FIRST prerequisite?..... MOBILITY. So I'm working on restoring maximal range of healthy, unfettered, pain-free, smooth movement to my arms, my shoulders, and my neck - the fusebox of the human body.

What's involved?.... MOBILITY WORK - BOTH PASSIVE & ACTIVE. That means that I'm receiving treatments to seek out the trigger points that are binding up my movement, to mobilize the joints that have been locked down, and to to restore elasticity of the soft tissues. 

That also means that I'm re-focusing my exercise time to temporarily steer away from weighted strength work and towards bodyweight mobility.

How do I do that?.... With my old UCLA Kung-Fu Warmup routine and its variants that include movements, exercises, & concepts from systems as diverse as Northern Shaolin, Capoeira Angola, Shuai-Chiao, & soon incorporating Z-Health drills that've been prescribed by Kenneth Jay.

Through the years of combative arts training, I've damaged my body and made it bear a heavy load by taking punishment without balancing it with equal amounts of restorative practice. As a result, I hit the wall and bounced off it when I tried to up my strength past a certain point. Now it's time for me to backtrack a bit and work on the resilience of my body, maximizing effortless, pain-free mobility again, and then rebuilding my strength to new heights of Hardstyle.