Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Mystery of Mastery

George Leonard was a writer, editor, and teacher whose passion was the exploration of human potential. In the early 1990s, he published Mastery – The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment.  It may help to point out that he was also a 5th degree black belt in Aikido, which like most ancient martial arts, sprung from a foundation of religion, spirituality, and mysticism.

Over the past 10 years, I have read this book at least four times, and it has definitely influenced the way I view life, success, business, and now, physical training.  But when it comes to defining what mastery is, I cannot quite get there.  I can tell you that it is more than any dictionary would lead you to believe. Leonard’s concept of mastery is much more than success, or excellence, or dominance, or skill, or expertise, though it certainly contains all of that.

Pick your sport or your passion. It can be a javelin or saxophone; a barbell or a sauce pan; a volleyball court or a theatrical stage; a kettlebell or a boardroom. I cannot tell you what mastery is, but I think I can show you what it looks like.

As far as the sport of golf is concerned, I am neither a player nor a fan, but I have to admit being intrigued and amazed by the early success of Tiger Woods, who not long after turning pro and winning the Masters was generally considered the best golfer on the planet and an odds-on favorite to become the winningest golfer in the history of the game.

So how do you explain it when a player who was often described as having the perfect swing, decides to dispense with that swing and build a new swing from scratch?  In fact, some experts say that by now, he has rebuilt his swing at least four times.  I think it is safe to say that most athletes, whether pros or duffers, believe that, when it comes to technique, tampering with success is a fast track to failure and frustration – especially when that technique is already winning tournament after tournament.

Many basketball fans consider the 1980s to be the golden era of professional basketball, and they credit Larry Bird and Magic Johnson as being the players most responsible for lifting the NBA out of the doldrums and exciting a new generation of fans with their unique abilities to lead their teams, the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers, to victory.

I was not a serious basketball fan during that era, but living in Celtics Land, it was impossible not to be aware of Larry Bird’s almost commonplace heroics which made him a 12-time all-star, earned him 3 MVP awards, and helped lead the Celtics to 3 world championship titles.  But my outstanding memory of Larry Bird was seeing his ritual of being alone on the court before a game, shooting jump shot after jump shot, before any other player on either team even made an appearance.

What was he going to accomplish with all of that practice?  Wasn’t that jump shot already so perfectly embedded in his muscle memory that it could never be lost even if for some strange reason he wanted to lose it?

And that brings me back to Tiger Woods and my outstanding memory of him. It was a Nike commercial, where he is repeatedly and flawlessly bouncing a golf ball off the head of a golf club, as though he was hitting a tennis ball off a tennis racket. He softly hits the ball up in the air in front of his body, then moves the club behind his back, and then through his legs. The ball never stops until he makes it land and rest, incredibly, on the head of the club – with seemingly unnatural control.

If you are involved in sports or fitness at any level, you have likely bumped into a coach or trainer who preached the gospel of the mind-body connection. But George Leonard operated on a different plane.  He preached the gospel of the mind-body-spirit connection.

We live in a culture that preaches measurable accomplishment.  Competitors train and hone their skills with their eyes on the award, the trophy, the championship, the MVP.  We, the more ordinary humans, seek our own individual milestones: losing 25 pounds, adding 50 pounds to our best deadlift, running 26 miles in under 4 hours, or seeing our first poem or short story published in a magazine. We set our sights on goals that keep us working and that keep us engaged in our training.

But, are we missing something that would bring us greater success and greater happiness? To me, George Leonard’s view of mastery is still somewhat of a mystery, but it is a mystery worth solving, so I am going to examine some clues, taken right from master’s lips:

Clue #1: Fundamentals, Practice, Small Incremental Steps

“Almost without exception, those we know as masters are dedicated to the fundamentals of their calling. They are zealots of practice, connoisseurs of the small incremental step.”

Tiger Woods and Larry Bird stand-out as zealots of practice, but what exactly does practice accomplish when conducted by individuals who are already at the very pinnacle of their sport? I think the answer lies in the phrase: “small incremental step.”
How many incremental steps are there to shooting a jump shot? If you or I might break it down to 5 steps or 7 steps, is it likely that Larry Bird broke his down to 10 or 12 steps, examining and perfecting micro-movements that are invisible to most observers?
And what about Tiger junking his seemingly perfect swing? Could it be that he saw microscopic components that did not mesh as perfectly as he wished they did and as perfectly as spectators and critics believed they did?

Clue #2: The Journey and The Plateau

“To take the master’s journey, you have to practice diligently, striving to hone your skills, to attain new levels of competence. But while doing so – and this is the inexorable fact of the journey – you will have to be willing to spend most of your time on a plateau, to keep practicing even when you seem to be getting nowhere.”

Your goal is to throw a 95 mile per hour fastball – literally or metaphorically. You started with an 88 mph fastball.  Your version of this goal could apply to any other sport, or fitness challenge, or life mission.

You practice religiously. You get good coaching. You adjust your mechanics. You practice your new and improved motion, and It begins to payoff. You are consistently throwing at 90 miles per hour, and you continue to practice, and practice, and practice, but your progress comes to a stop. You feel that you are getting nowhere.

You have reached the dreaded plateau.

So, what do you do? It is here, on the plateau that many give up. But if you decide that you are on the road to mastery, you will have no reason to give up. You understand that you must embrace the journey. You realize that true progress comes in small incremental steps, and that those steps may be so small that you cannot see them.

Clue #3: Loving The Plateau

“Loving the plateau is to love the eternal now, to enjoy the inevitable spurts of progress and the fruits of accomplishment, then serenely to accept the new plateau that waits just beyond them. To love the plateau that awaits just beyond them. To love the plateau is to love what is most essential and enduring in your life.”

When your fastball went from 88 to 90, it seemed to happen all at once, in a great spurt of progress. But, in reality your skill improved before you saw the measurable result. Now, on the plateau, while you are focused on every micro-component of your arm motion, you are continuing to improve, even though you have not seen the measurable proof of that improvement.

So, when that next spurt does happen and the radar gun tells you that you are now throwing at 93 mph, you of course enjoy those fruits, but your road to mastery demands that you continue to practice and hone your skill, while you look forward to your next plateau.

Clue #4: The Journey is Endless

“Ultimately, the master and the master’s journey are one. And if the traveler is fortunate – that is, if the path is complex and profound enough – the destination is two miles farther away for every mile he or she travels.”

Are we now getting closer to solving the mystery, or are we coming to terms with the truth that the mystery of mastery is not quite solvable?

The destination never stands still.  If we are fortunate enough to find our 95 mile per hour fastball, we will either set our sights on 96 or we will find the components that need to be fixed or replaced to have the most efficient and consistent 95 that we can possibly attain. 

For Tiger Woods, the perfect golf swing is one that he has not yet discovered. For Larry Bird, the perfect jump shot was farther down the path. For you, the perfect deadlift, tennis serve, kettlebell swing, 10K road race, chess match, or whatever may be your own personal fastball just might be a lot more than what you see in the mirror, on the radar gun, or on the stat sheet. It might lie deep in your soul. It might begin with the simple joy that comes with your deep connection to the golf club, or the basketball, the barbell – your fingers on the seams of the baseball, or on the strings of the guitar, or in the garden soil.

Our culture drums into our brains that we must have goals. Trainers and coaches tell us that those goals must be measurable, and George Leonard agrees, but he also tells us:

“Keep your eyes on the path. And when you reach the top of the mountain, as the Zen saying goes, keep on climbing.”

A true master never stops being a learner.

And a real detective never stops searching until the mystery has been solved.


Sunday, July 28, 2013


You Were Born to Be a Swinger. Seriously, You Were!

No, no, no! I am not suggesting that you should be spending time in naughty nightclubs. I am referring to the health and mobility of your shoulders. Think about it for a moment. You can swing your arms in small, tight circles, medium circles, and big looping circles.  You can swing them out to the side or over your head, or down by your legs, or even behind your back – all because of that nifty ball and socket joint called the shoulder.

Is Your Fast Ball Turning Into More of a Sinker?

There are a lot of muscles that contribute to making the shoulder joint work like a well oiled machine, and chances are you are using those muscles way too selectively. You are doing lots of lifting, pushing (pressing) and pulling or you play your favorite sports and do a lot of throwing, passing, shooting (balls, not guns), punching, or swinging a racquet or a golf club – until your shoulder starts to hurt. Then you rest it, ice it, heat it, medicate it, and eventually COMPENSATE!

You consciously or unconsciously adjust your movements by easing off the sore or stiff muscles and relying on some fresh ones to lift, push, pull, throw, pass, punch, shoot, or swing a racquet or a golf club.  And that compensation gets the job done, up until something else hurts – like your neck, or your elbow, or your back.

Just for a Minute, Pretend You Are Clock?

Please stand-up and raise your right hand – as high as you can - like you are back in a classroom and you want the teacher to call on you. Your elbow is locked-out (not bent) and your fingers are pointing toward the ceiling.  If your hand were the hand of a clock, it should be squarely on the twelve.
But, if your hand can only make it as far as the eleven, so that your bicep is closer to your cheek than your ear, you do not have full range of motion. Now you might decide to really push that arm and shoulder back, so that you can hit twelve o’clock, but are you unintentionally arching your lower back to get that extra couple of inches? Once again compensation gets the job done – at the expense of other muscles.

This Might a Good Time to Do the Backstroke!

Starting with your arms at your side, bring your right arm up and in a backward circle, like you are lying in pool and doing the backstroke. Then, do the same with your left arm.  Continue alternating arm strokes, keeping the strokes smooth and gentle, and as close to your body as you can.  IF YOU FEEL PAIN OR DISCOMFORT, BACK OFF! Do not work through the pain. Adjust your arm stroke (taking it a little away from your body) so that you can complete the backward circle without feeling pain. That adjusted movement is your current (limited!) range of motion.

If you use the backstroke exercise either by itself or as a warm-up before your regular workout or sports activity, (unless your shoulder problem is more serious than you think), you will slowly increase that range of motion, and when your raise-the-hand-like-a-clock test starts getting closer to the twelve, you will know that you are making solid progress. Of course, if you experience consistent shoulder pain, you will immediately consult your physician or physical therapist. But I really did not need to tell you that. Or did I?

Now wouldn’t it be really cool if there were a way to build both shoulder strength and shoulder mobility simultaneously? Come to think of it there is. Have you heard of Indian Clubs?

But that, as they say, is another story. Coming soon!

In the meantime, please repeat after me: I was born to be a swinger.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

10 Great Reasons to Train With Kettlebells

I am a kettlebell junkie! Discovering these cannonballs with handles has totally changed the way I think about exercise. I am not only a junkie, but a missionary. I accidently left one of my bells in the back seat of the car, when my wife and I embarked on a day trip to Ogunquit, Maine. We were pleasantly chatting at the bar of an upscale restaurant, when a discussion with the bartender led to my favorite exercise pastime.

Before I knew it (and after a large glass of red wine), the traveling kettlebell was out of the car and in the bar. I completed a demonstration of the kettlebell swing before my salad arrived. I think the bartender may soon become a user.

Here is my list of the top 10 reasons to catch the habit:

1.      Most kettlebell exercises are whole body exercises, working your muscles the way they are designed to work, as interconnected parts of a highly efficient machine, rather than building muscles, one muscle group at a time, as though they are meant to work as isolated parts – which they are not.

2.      Most of the primary kettlebell exercises provide an intense cardio-respiratory workout while simultaneously building whole body muscle strength, endurance, and mobility, delivering a maximum workout in 30 minutes or less. MAKE SURE YOU ARE HEALTHY ENOUGH TO ENGAGE IN HIGH-INTENSITY EXERCISE.

3.      Kettlebell exercises deliver functional, athletic fitness, rather than body building style muscle development. Would you rather look like a statue or move like panther?

4.      Kettlebell exercises are simple and relatively easy to learn.  You don’t have to be an athlete to train like one. BUT, PLEASE GET SOME INSTRUCTION BEFORE YOU BEGIN.

5.      Kettlebell exercises require total focus. You will wring every minute out of your exercise program by bringing mind and body together, rather than having to use music or a t.v. to distract yourself from treadmill monotony.

6.      Kettlebells are highly portable. You can use them indoors or outdoors, and you can throw one in your car and take it with you on your next driving trip. Nothing like swinging a kettlebell in your motel room or mother-in-law's guest bedroom.  Just try not to drop it, especially if there’s a chandelier hanging from the ceiling beneath you.

7.      You can get a great workout from one single kettlebell, or you can dramatically increase your exercise options by adding just one or two more of different weights.  Most people will never need more than three or four.

8.      Kettlebell exercises automatically build core and glute strength. These are the most important muscles we have for getting through life strongly and safely.  They help us walk, climb, twist, and lift.  Without the right exercises, they go soft. If they already have, don’t worry. You can get them back.

9.      You want strong leg muscles. If you have knee, ankle, hip, or other orthopedic problems, you don’t want to make it worse by running or jumping. Kettlebell exercises can help you strengthen your leg muscles without your feet ever leaving the ground. BUT, OF COURSE, CHECK WITH YOUR DOCTOR OR PHYSICAL THERAPIST BEFORE YOU START PLAYING AROUND WITH KETTLEBELLS.

10.  If you already have some favorite exercises, you do not have to give them up. Kettlebells can replace your current exercise program or they can complement it.

Are you ready to get started? Admit it. You’re thinking about it. 

Monday, April 29, 2013

Getting Stronger (What Exactly Does That Mean?)

So, you are out of shape and you want to get stronger. Good for you! But, what exactly do you mean by “getting stronger?”

I have my own theory about this, and here is an illustration that I like to use in order to make my point:

One day you walk out your back door and right in the middle of your backyard is a very large rock.  You have no idea how it got there, and you want get rid of it.  Your helpful neighbors (if you are fortunate enough to have any) are all away, and you don’t want to pay someone to remove it for you.

So, you walk up to the rock, bend down, put your arms around it, and you try lifting it off the ground.  Immediately, you realize that it is too heavy, and making any further attempts would likely require medical attention.

But, you are stubborn. You decide that if you were a little stronger than you are, you would be able to pick up that rock and move it out of the way. You devise a plan. You put yourself on a two week exercise program to build your muscles. You probably start with your upper arms, meaning your biceps and triceps. You may also be smart enough to include muscles in your back and legs.

At the end of those two weeks, you are definitely feeling stronger, and you just might be ready to move that annoying rock.

Or, let us suppose you had adopted a very different strategy.

After your failed attempt to lift the rock, you sit down with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine and start thinking through the process of doing the most efficient lift possible.

First you realize that it would be a big mistake to rely mostly on arm strength. You decide that you will have to utilize every muscle group possible, and since all of your muscles are connected, it would make sense to figure out how to get as many of those muscles working together as possible.

Fortunately, you stumble across my previous blog post, instructing you on the why and how to activate the muscles of your core and your glutes. It stands to reason that the power you will need to lift that large rock off the ground begins not with your arms, but with the muscles running through your body that stabilize and strengthen those arm muscles.

Secondly, you realize that you should not just bend over from the waist to lift the rock or you will most likely hurt your lower back. So, you will have to bend forward from the hips, push your butt back, bend your knees, and keep your upper back straight – not vertical – just straight from your head to your tailbone.

You might practice the big lift by starting with a smaller and lighter rock.  As you pick it up, you feel the muscles of your upper legs tense, helping your upper body support the weight of the rock and then helping you come up to a standing position.

As soon as you reach that standing position, you “lock-out.” Your back and legs are straight. Your shoulders are locked straight down in their sockets – not rounded forward, and the muscles of your core and glutes are firing hard to protect your back.

As you walk with the rock tucked in close to your belly, you are not slouched forward or bent backward at the waist. You are maintaining a strong posture. You then stop, push your butt straight back, bend your knees and slowly lower the rock on a soft grassy spot in your neighbors’ backyard, where they will have to deal with it when they return from vacation.

And then you practice that exercise again and again, training your muscles – mainly your core and glutes -- to fire exactly when you need them to complete the task strongly and efficiently.

So, here you have two different definitions of getting stronger – building muscle vs. perfecting mechanics. Is one more valid than the other? Observe exercisers in most gyms and health clubs and I think you will come to the conclusion that one is considered gospel while the other might not be considered at all.

You should consider both. And you should train brilliantly!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Tense Your Core and Squeeze Your Glutes (Once You Find Them)

On my road to becoming a trainer, this was the most valuable instruction I ever received, but I did not learn it at “trainer school.” Like a lot of others, I learned it from wandering around on the internet and discovering the training guru, Pavel Tsatsouline.  

Pavel has a way of reducing fitness strategies and principles to nuggets of simple, easy-to-understand instruction. Actually, Pavel’s instructions sound more like commands, but that is part of the famous Pavel mystique.

First principle: all of our muscles are connected, so drop the idea of jumping on an exercise machine that isolates a single muscle group, unless you want to hyper-develop every single muscle in your body and become a professional bodybuilder. If you are looking for functional strength and fitness that works in the real world, start thinking about whole-body exercise.

Now that we are all on the same page, let’s take two very simple steps that will start you on the road to getting functionally stronger than you’ve ever been.

We will start with your core – a bunch of muscles that wrap around your mid-section like an internal girdle.  Over the years, your core has become soft, which is bad – very bad.  Besides performing the rather important task of protecting your spine, these muscles are meant to work together to help you move with strength, bend, turn, twist, and lift heavy objects safely and efficiently.

Then, there are the muscles that you are right now sitting on. Those are the glutes, and they are the biggest, strongest muscles in your body. Stand up and poke your finger tips into your buns. If they have the consistency of cottage cheese, they are doing you very little good. If you want to move with power, you will need to change that.

So let’s get started. Stand up. Now, tense your core.  How do you that? You react as you would if someone were throwing a punch at your stomach. It’s a very natural response. Hold that tension and increase it. Your core is now engaged. These muscles have been called to action.

Now squeeze your cheeks (not the ones on your face) as hard as you can. Pretend that you are holding a quarter between them, and you cannot let it drop. This silly but valuable image comes directly from Pavel.  I’m pretty sure he can hold a dime between his cheeks. Now jab your finger tips into those cheeks and make contact with your glutes. They have been dormant for years. They used to fire automatically, and you want them to do that again. They will. You have just begun a program to retrain them.

So, jab your stomach and feel the core muscles firing, and then jab you glutes and feel them firing.  Now, relax. Now do it all again.  Do this often. The muscles will get harder and stronger. You will soon begin involving them in your exercise routines – ALL of your exercise routines.

And one day soon, when you least expect it, when you are walking up a hill, or down a flight of stairs, or carrying a heavy object, you will notice them firing automatically – strongly, efficiently, and naturally.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Lend Me Your Body (For Fitness Purposes Only)

Hi there, and welcome to the very first post of my brand new blog!

I hope you are out of shape. In fact, I hope you are horribly out of shape. Why? Because if you have allowed your body to turn to mush, you need me, and I like feeling needed. Seriously though, if you happen to be reading this blog, it probably means that you have decided to put some of that lost muscle back on your bones and burn up some of that unwanted fat that you are carrying around on your hips, your butt, your waist, or all of the above.

You made a decision to get fit. Good for you! Whether you are a true Boomer, in your 50s, 60s, or 70s, or a younger Boomer-wannabe in your 40s, you have the grand opportunity of getting your college days body back, unless your college days were spent drinking beer and eating giant size bags of Cheetos, in which case, we should focus on getting you the body you never had.

We will get in to the specifics in future posts, but let’s begin by changing your life in a painless, but meaningful way.  Are you ready?  Good. Stand up. Now, move. Walk around in circle. Swing your arms and move your legs. Mentally tune in to the muscles you are using to engineer this simple exercise.

New rule: Cut down on your sitting time by standing. Improve the value of your standing time by moving around. Do this at your desk, in front of the t.v. set, or on your front porch. Every chance you get, sit less and move more. Got it?

The next time you go to Home Depot, or Costco, or the grocery store, park in the lonely outskirts of the parking lot and take a hike to the entrance.  Remember to swing your arms.  Feel your blood pumping and your lungs filling with air, and feel the muscles moving in your back and legs. When you return to your car, you will notice no new dings in the doors. The careless louts who would have put them there expended all of their energy searching out the closest parking spots to the entrance. They are easy to spot. They are the ones with lousy posture, using their shopping carts as walkers.

Well that’s it for now. I think we are off to a fine start. Please come back soon. We’ll talk later (while standing, of course).