Sunday, December 1, 2013

No pain, no gain? How the toughness mindset can be our worst enemy in the long-run

Toughen up.

Man up.

Suck it up.

No pain, no gain.

Try harder.

Push yourself.

We've heard all of these words of "encouragement" for years. Regardless of your sport, your workout, or your occupation, there are times when the going gets tough, but the tough get going.... and oftentimes keep going past the point of health.

I spend most of my working hours in the field of clinical pain medicine. I see what goes on behind the scenes with high performers. And I see what happens when hard chargers tune out the warning lights for too long.

Pain is something we all need to learn to deal with, to control, to suppress. When you're in a life-or-death struggle, your little hangnail shouldn't be on your radar. When you're competing for an Olympic gold medal, a sore muscle or blister shouldn't be testing your commitment to giving your absolute best. When you're in the middle of fighting off an assault, you shouldn't be wallowing in the sadness of the breakup you just went through (unless it's to quickly tap into the anger that'll kickstart your offense). There are undeniably situations where forcing yourself to train through a mental block can create positive physical adaptations that improve long-term performance.

But when you're trying to sleep and diffuse, throbbing pain is robbing you of the ability to rest and recover, when you can't even bend down to pick up a child's toy without suffering sharp pain, when getting in & out of your car makes your breathing more shallow because of a twinge, when you need to use alcohol or pain killers or antidepressants or other substances just to be able to "function", something's VERY wrong.

What's the solution?

The solution is & isn't an easy one. We need to learn, apply, and constantly improve our self & contextual awareness.

Self awareness has a few fundamental components that need to be developed and habituated:

  1. Posture - Having the ability to align your body for maximum efficient power, a.k.a. joint alignment
  2. Relaxation / Engagement - Having the ability to take your muscles deeper into disengagement and maximal tension. This includes breathing, vision, and other seemingly non-athletic activities that we often take for granted and never bother to optimize.
  3. Range of motion - Being able to take your body parts through wider ranges of movement with ease and without pain

Contextual awareness deals with our ability to apply our self awareness in different situations:

  1. Load - How well do we align, engage, relax, and move (ROM) under load?
  2. Endurance - How long can we align, engage, relax, and move under a given load and for how many reps?
  3. Adaptation - How well do we align, engage, relax, and move under a given load, for how long, and for how many reps while dealing with different challenges (such as hunger, noise, emotional distraction, physical discomfort, etc.)

If we lack the contextual awareness to see that we reflexively deal with some sort of noxious stimulus (or stimuli) by unwittingly sacrificing posture, using improper relaxation/tension, or losing range of motion in certain patterns, this is where "toughness" gets in the way of health & performance.

It's great to be tough, as toughness is one of the attributes that feeds endurance. But when you start substituting stubbornness for toughness in the hunt for performance, you're actually pulling your performance ceiling lower and covering up the "check engine light" with electrical tape, so to speak. This makes finding a solution to the pain/performance paradigm more difficult.

It's a great quality to be driven to succeed. It's a fatal flaw, however, to be so committed to driving yourself (and your clients, students, etc.) "forward" that you're unable to adapt your programming in ways that honor safety as a part of performance.

Be flexible in your approach, in your programming, in your intensity, and in your mindset for the purpose of perceiving and LEARNING how to get better, safer results. Don't just slow down or speed up & expect that things will get better. Don't just use lighter weights or go heavier and expect that things will get better. Be observant and sensitive to how your body reacts to any given program, load, or challenge.

Too little stimulus, and no positive adaptation happens. Too much stimulus, and a negative compensation develops. So when you're spending time working off those pounds from the Thanksgiving weekend indulgence, make sure to listen to your body, to double and triple check your technique (and work with a skilled trainer if you're not 100% sure about proper technique), and to push the envelope of your capacity without tearing it.

Train perceptively.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

My Teaching Resources - The Doc Cheng list

The last few days, since making my new YouTube channel more active, I've been getting more messages from people asking for what reference material I have available.

Admittedly, I'm THE WORST when it comes to remembering what I've done. I'm always looking forward to the next multimedia project that I need to prepare for, thinking of the next workshop I need to pack for, and constantly struggling to steal minutes here & there to better my own understanding of the material that I love (which is also what I teach).

So this morning, before spending some training time with Squealie & hopefully bolting out the door to steal some time learning from Martin Wheeler, I tried to put down the most complete list of training, rehab, & educational references that I've been part of to date. 

First on the list is Tai Cheng
This program, that I put together in cooperation with Beachbody, the producers of P90X & Insanity, is the first program in their catalog that emphasized quality of movement over quantity. Instead of a "Fit Test", Tai Cheng starts with a "Function Test". Throughout the entirety of the program, movements are taught in a very precise, step-by-step fashion, leaving nothing to guesswork. Even the footwork patterns are done on a grid, allowing you to double check at every step along the way.

Additionally, I also worked in 4 basic foam rolling progressions and many of the strength, flexibility, and breathing exercises that are part & parcel of old-school Tai Chi as I was taught by my father & other masters. 

Instead of trying to come up with my own style of Tai Chi, I wanted to break down the first section of the Yang style Tai Chi large frame long form in a manner that would be digestible to western audiences who were more attuned to high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and Tabata protocols. So while Carl Daikeler wanted to name the program Tai Cheng with the Cheng referring to my last name (鄭), I named the program after one of the most important achievements (also Romanized as "Cheng", but written as 成) - health. 

Next up is the Kettlebells from the Ground Up DVD series 1 & 2, which was fathered by my mentor, Gray Cook. Gray & Brett Jones appear in the first DVD, while I authored the manual. Brett, Jeff O'Connor, & I appear in the second part of the series - The Advanced Progressions.

In these DVDs, we cover the Turkish Get-Up inside out, upside down, and from every possible angle that you can think of, dispelling some of the myths behind the exercise, and giving you the peelbacks that allow you to get more benefits out of the exercise with less risk.

I've also done the Kettlebell Warrior with DragonDoor. While this footage didn't hit the market until waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay after it was shot and some of the information in there was rather dated, it's still got some of my better teaching cues for the fundamental RKC/StrongFirst kettlebell lifts and shows the carryover for martial artist & combat sports.

Also, there was the Kettlebell Rehab presentation that Doug Nepodal & I did a few years ago for IDEA Health & Fitness Association at their Los Angeles convention. We took the two fundamental lifts of Pavel Tsatsouline's Program Minimum and taught them in great detail, tying in rehab principles along the way.

There are also a few podcasts that I've done for which are available for download. Some of those also feature my brother/colleague, Dr. Jimmy Yuan. Simply go to the site & type in Cheng in the search field to find some of the talks & podcast lectures that I've been honored to be part of.

I'm sure that I'm forgetting something, and hopefully folks who've recalled some other resources that I've been part of will chime in on the comments below. In the meantime, I hope this off-the-top-of-my-head list will steer you towards some material that will do you & your clientele/patients a world of good.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Veterans' Day, the USMC, & Arnold Schwarzenegger - A vignette

Yes, I know I haven't blogged in ages, and I promise that I'm getting back on the wagon with this. ;-) But considering that yesterday was the 238th birthday of the United States Marine Corps, and today is Veterans' Day, I wanted to share a particular experience with you.

Over the years, I've been blessed to meet & work with a lot of really cool people. If you've followed me on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, you have an idea of what I'm talking about. It's a crazy life for the child of immigrant Chinese from rural Delaware, and there's hardly a day that goes by that I don't shake my head in wonder, tripping out on how life has turned out for me.

Thanks to one of my dear friends, I was fortunate enough to bring my son to meet Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at the unveiling of his latest Muscle & Fitness cover on Venice's legendary Muscle Beach.

While we were waiting in line, there was a young Marine standing right behind us who'd just come back from deployment. I spoke with the young man about his experiences overseas, and he was telling us that meeting Arnold was one of the most momentous experiences of his life. He went on to talk about how Schwarzenegger's story motivated him and inspired him through some of the most difficult parts of his tour of duty. Holding an older digital camera, the young Marine asked if I'd take a picture for him when he got to meet Arnold, to which I gladly agreed.

When Squealie & I had just finished taking the pic above, the Fire Marshall and crowd control quickly shooed us out. I looked back at the young Marine with regret & disappointment at not being able to take the picture for him. 

I'd found out later that thanks to Gov. Schwarzenegger's right hand man, Daniel Ketchell, the young Marine was indeed able to meet his hero and snap a pic with him... much to my relief. While that certainly put a smile on my face, Ketchell later told me that Schwarzenegger then took the time to handwrite a note of personal thanks to the young Marine in appreciation for his service to our country.

That left tears of pride and joy streaming down my cheeks. 

Veterans, you are the front line of a fight that makes our way of life possible. As I count my family's blessing on a daily basis, I count you among them.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Reality Check

There are some times that I'm really glad that I have a voice memo function on my iPhone. When I remember to use it, especially when I'm about to get into a conversation with someone who sounds like they have a good point, it can yield some pretty useful content.

"Hey, Dr. Cheng, I think your Tai Cheng is perfect for some older folks & people coming back from injuries. It's really awesome for making people feel better!"

Oh, thank you so much for your kind words! Have you used it?

"No way, man. I'm an athlete. I can't get anything out of those slower workouts. My body needs to MOVE to burn off  feel alive!" [with a big grin and a puffed out chest]

Oh, cool. Have you tried kettlebells before too?

"Oh, yeah! I got some DVDs from the gym & tried them, but they hurt my knees and interfered with my plyos."

Interesting. May I see you do a couple of Swings, please, with this 12kg bell?

"Sure!" [proceeds to demonstrate a squat-centric Swing with a slightly ounded back]

How would you rate your form on this exercise?

"Oh, I studied the DVDs. I know the Swing. I'm sure you could find some little correction though." [with a snide tone]

What if I told you that your execution on these exercises is actually hurting you? What if I told you that it's not only hurting your ability to do certain exercises, but also tearing your body apart? Would that alarm you at all?

"Well, I feel fine."

Really? For as hard as you workout & train, you should be able to not only run a mile without pain, but also do 60 seconds of box jumps without pain, get up & down out of a chair in a relaxed fashion without pain, and then hit 5 non-consecutive pullups without kipping and without pain. Can you do any of that and still tell me that you feel "fine"?

"Ummmm...." [blank expression]

Dude, you're TWICE my size. You should be able to Swing a 32kg kettlebell with absolute impunity if you used proper form and experienced IMPROVEMENT in your plyos, NOT impairment. An "athlete" should be someone who can not only handle activities of daily life, but who can also go above and beyond with their body. If how you train is forcing you to "supplement" with pain medication and Advil figures prominently on your grocery list, then you need a reality check, my friend. Sorry to have to put it to you this way, but I'm not going to sugar coat the truth for you..... You're training just for social bragging rights, not for long-term functionality or performance.

"Well, what exercises can I add to my workouts to get better?"

It's not what you can ADD to your workouts that will save you at this point. Right now, you're going to get the fastest & most lasting results by setting your ego aside just long enough to save your own life. 

"Oh, like your boy Gray Cook says: Remove the negative. Right?"

Gray Cook is my mentor, but yes, right now, any exercise that you can't execute with proper form is a negative. There's nothing wrong with ANY exercise. The problem right now lies in how you execute those movement patterns. Your neuromuscular system needs a bit of re-training without any reinforcement of bad habits. Once you've accomplished that, I can almost guarantee that your physical output in your preferred training style will improve, but more importantly, you should be able to do your activities of daily life without having to waste energy bracing for pain. In other words, you'll get more out of your workout with less damage to your system.

"Right on! Sign me up! Is there a DVD or anything that has the stuff you're talking about in it?"

Absolutely. It's called Tai Cheng.

Monday, February 11, 2013


As a general rule, I like to take inventory of my life on a regular basis, much in the same way that I say that it's important to take inventory of your body's available ranges of pain-free motion in the Function Test of Tai Cheng. This is especially true for me around the Chinese New Year.

As I look at the faces of my children, reflect on the trials & tribulations of this past year (as well as the trials and tribulations of those close to my heart), examine the successes and strong points of those whom I respect, and reprioritize my resources based on who and what I have become, I've come to some important realizations that things must change in order to evolve.

I've been teaching for just over 2 decades, both privately and in group classes. At one time, I taught group classes 7 days a week, while I was an undergrad. Until very recently, I taught regular group classes only on Saturday & Sunday mornings at a martial arts school in West LA.

But as my son grows more teachable & impressionable, and I see my elders and peers age, it becomes more and more apparent to me that I need to honor the "last wishes" rule: e.g., if asked at the end of my life if I had any last wishes or regrets, what would those be?

Would they be that I didn't spend enough time teaching group classes?

Would they be that I didn't put enough effort into traveling the world?

Would they be that I didn't give enough to the people I've already been giving plenty to?

Highly improbable.

Especially this Chinese New Year, for some reason, my heart's been aching for me to devote more time to some pursuits that really define what I think are some of the best parts of my heritage, my legacy, my learning, and my skills... most of which revolve around the traditional Chinese martial arts.

All the good things that I've ever had in my life came to me through my involvement in the martial arts. I've made no secret of that, and anyone who's been following me knows that the martial arts & the traditional cultures surrounding them are my soul.

Effective immediately, I am hereby canceling the remainder of my group classes indefinitely and focusing on my own training & improvement as well as that of my children. Outside of my family members, those whom I teach with any semblance of regularity will be those who know how to appreciate what I teach and how I teach it, without weighing me down with responsibilities to change behaviors that I'm neither paid for nor entitled to regulate.

I will continue to teach at workshops (such as those of StrongFirst, Functional Movement Systems, Beachbody, or other groups that I am affiliated with). I will also continue to maintain my private client roster, although I will only be accepting new clients by referral only. A list of instructors that I've trained & recognize will be posted here in the coming weeks.

I'm also going to make a concerted shift to putting more & more of my best stuff on DVD, such as with Kettlebell Warrior, so that neither you or I are limited by time & space. If you want to learn what makes me tick, what lifts my heart, and what restores my body (as well as that of my patients & clients), then I'll do my best to make it accessible to you.

Looking forward to a strong, bright, and shining future to us all!