Saturday, November 22, 2014

Comfortably dumb

I am a consultant by profession. I am not really an expert on anything but know enough (or at least pretend to know) to help my clients. I float around from one client to another and one place to another. The job requires me to change or reset my life frequently. I have not been allowed to get comfortable although I want to. In the last 2.5 years, I have lived in Seattle, California, Chennai (home) and am now in Amsterdam. It does suck - I have missed having some sort of stability in location. By the time I settle down somewhere, make friends and get into a routine, it’s time to move. My biggest gripe is that as long as I don’t finalize a long term location or at least a continent, I cannot have dogs in my life again!

On the plus side, I have learnt to adapt to new places, cultures and people quickly. I have learnt to work with people in India, the United States and now Europe. I know how to set myself up quickly in a new place. I have a nice checklist to find an apartment anywhere.

I was talking to a client who is leaving his organization having spent 11 years building his career there. That organization, the people and the place are all he knows and he has built quite a bit of goodwill there. Everybody loved him and I envied the guy. So why was he leaving? Interestingly, he told me that he envies my job! He is worried that he is getting too comfortable and that is a risk for him personally and professionally. What if the company or industry runs into some kind of financial crisis? He is worried that he has not seen enough of the world outside to survive. He thinks he has been influenced into thinking a certain way which may or may not be the only way. He wants to be able to work in a place like India or China and be successful.

It got me thinking – I complain about work a lot. But to be honest, it has allowed me to learn and experience so many new things and meet so many people. Right now, I am in Europe with my living expenses covered and I get to travel over the weekends. I should be thankful. But I want what the other guy has – the stability, the comfort, the relationships and all the good stuff that comes with it. I guess there is no right or wrong – the grass is always greener on the other side.

In fitness and training, there are people who specialize in something like strength/endurance/mobility/sport and there are others who prescribe training for life – for long term health and wellness. Personally, I love lifting heavy stuff and don’t quite enjoy anything that requires me to move for longer than a minute. I focused on lifting heavy for about a year and at that time, I probably needed it to build a solid foundation. Now, I need to get better at the other stuff if I want to remain healthy in the long term. I need to move better, faster and last longer. If not, it is a risk for my health. I need to diversify my fitness portfolio and not get comfortable at one form of training. I need to get better at everything to have a stable and healthy life in the long term.

I have been training with barbells after a good 6 month break and I am loving it. However, I know I love it only because I am comfortable doing it. I still hate running – maybe if I train enough and run better or more efficiently I will start to like running. Maybe even love it. I appreciate the importance and effectiveness of kettlebell training but I still don’t like it – it’s probably because my squat with the kettlebell is so much more wobbly and lighter than my squat with the barbell. I have learnt that I have to try different things and get better at everything. I need to be prepared to be fit anywhere. What if I have to travel to someplace which has absolutely no training facilities and the only available resistance is bodyweight. What if the place has only bread to eat and no meat? I still have to be fit and strong and need to adapt.

I do want to find a sweet spot and not keep experimenting all the time. But, just as with professional life, I think it will take time. I will try and fail in the next few years. But I will learn. Some people are lucky and find that sweet spot pretty early in life. Most of us will spend the majority of our lives looking for it. I am one of the lucky ones who has started looking for it reasonably young and also has the freedom to look for it.

When I do find that sweet spot, I know I am fit for life.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Feet on the Ground

I am embarrassed to post on my blog after months of inactivity. No excuses. I was just lazy and confused. Going forward, goal is to post on this blog at least once a month to begin with.

I have spent the last four months back in my hometown of Chennai, India after spending 2 years in the United States. It’s crazy and sometimes scary when I think back at how the thoughts in my head have evolved over the last few months.

When I got here in May, I was a little spoilt with the standards of living, working, training and coaching I was lucky enough to experience in the US. My best friend says I am a ‘snob’ at times. I was pretty sure I cannot live in Chennai and India again – it was funny because I spent 29 years living in the country before I left and suddenly after 2 years away, I was too good for the place. A big reason for the way I felt was also the fact that I was in ‘limbo’ professionally. I had plans and options but things and people were moving at their own slow pace which left me super frustrated.

Over the last two year, I worked hard to get to where I am with respect to strength and fitness. I made big changes to my daily routine and it took a lot of self-discipline and sacrifice. However, the key to my growth was the access to a bunch of ‘enablers’ to health, fitness and nutrition. I had access to awesome training equipment and coaching. I could get myself cage free eggs/chicken, grass fed beef, organic produce, high quality nuts, supplements, etc. It was easy to go to a restaurant and choose to eat the right stuff. I could take walks without worrying about dehydration or getting hit by traffic.

Back home, things are different. There are a very few gyms with barbells – even if they do have barbells, there are very few trainers who can coach correct technique. There are no weightlifting platforms or bumper plates. I just about manage to afford some decent quality chicken everyday – if I had a family or other financial commitments, this would be a luxury I cannot afford. Organic milk and produce is extremely expensive. Eating out and eating healthy is very difficult. Temperatures are consistently at around 35 degrees celcius (a little less than 100 degrees Fahrenheit) and it is super humid which makes it difficult to do any kind of activity out in the open without sweating profusely.

On the plus side, I have started eating a lot more vegetables and because we have so many different and tasty ways to cook vegetables, I actually like the veggies J

The biggest positive has been my training – specifically, the changes to my mindset and attitude to training. The last two years were great – CrossFit in Seattle introduced me to a bunch of movements and gave me my foundation in strength. Weightlifting in California was just fun. Period.

However, my outlook to training at both these places was short term – focused on strength gains in the short term and in the process I probably overtrained and abused my already unfit and dysfunctional body.

Then, I was asking myself questions like –

·         How much should my back squat increase by in the next 12 weeks?
·         Why did I train less this week?
·         How can I eat 3000 + calories everyday?
·         Damn it, why did my bodyweight drop by 2 lbs this week?

Now, I am asking myself questions like –

·         How do I stay fit and eat right with all the challenges in a place like Chennai?
·         How can I stay away from injury?
·         How can I squat like my 2 year old Goddaughter?
·         How can I live my 30+ life without health problems?

My thinking has changed or rather evolved for the better. At some point in the near future, I am sure I will need to focus on short term gains. I am hoping that I will have the knowledge and experience to ensure I don’t lose sight of the bigger picture and my long term goals in the journey to health and fitness.

The best part about being at home in Chennai is that I have my own support system here that is helping me. I have family and friends and they more than make up for whatever I miss from the US. This does not mean that I am staying here forever – All this support from friends and family might make be lazy J It just means that I have discovered or rediscovered the way to live my current life health and happy.

My goal over the next two years is to set an example for every other person trying to achieve their own fitness and health goals in a place like India. It may be ambitious but I am trying to prove to myself and to others that it is possible if you put your mind to it. Oh and also, I want to be less of a ‘snob’ and stay grounded. Most of the time.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

What's the worst that can happen?

Unless the answer to that question is "I can or will die", I think most situations we are in are actually not that bad. Late for a movie - so you might miss a few minutes. Missing a deadline for your clients - odds are you aren't costing them a million dollars. Making a big presentation at work - so what if you screw up? You will probably have a whole bunch of chances in the future to make amends.

I guess the same philosophy can apply to lifting, exercise and training. Try to lift something heavy and fail, drop the bar, make a whole lot of noise - nobody in your gym is going to laugh at you. At least, they shouldn't. If they do, maybe you have to find a new gym. Huffing and puffing through a workout - who cares as long as you finish it? Not losing as much weight as you planned to? Ask yourself, are you honestly doing everything you should be? If yes, fix the plan. If not, fix your discipline and adherence to the plan.

The question is, when does this become too much? When does ambition and determination and perseverance become obsession and stupidity? I guess it is a fine line. I have been reading a few articles/blogs of late that talk about people who go to extremes in training/nutrition. I am talking about not eating cake at a family birthday, skipping social events for fear of 'cheating' on your nutrition plan, training through pain, not eating because you don't get grass fed beef and organic vegetables, lifting something 10 Kg heavier than you should be.

I have been guilty of doing some or all of the above at various points in the last few years. Granted, the intent was always to get healthier and stronger but in hindsight, it has either made me anxious, weak or sore. It has made me stay in at home rather than get out and meet people.

Importantly, I think there is some amount of insecurity that comes into play here. If you are working and training as hard as you can, you probably will not care about missing a workout or one or two 'cheat' meals in a week (btw, the preferred and more positive term to use is 'treat' meals). If you are doing a half-assed job in the gym or at work, you will most likely always be worried that the smallest possible intervention will drive a wrench into your plans. And hence, you obsess or crib over the small little details. I have also realized and have always experienced that hard work takes time. You don't get strong at something overnight. You need to work extra hard for the first few years to build strength and then work even harder to maintain it, as you fight against age and metabolism.

I have started late. So I am working extra hard to undo all the abuse I have put my body through. The good thing is, I don't feel insecure right now. I have a tummy, I can't run too far or too long, I am probably not eating 'paleo' 80% of the time. But I have basic strength now and I am working hard. I feel great - I am pretty sure it will pay off, but a few years from now.

So, unless you are trying something like this, go for it.

Try and lift something 1 kg heavier. Try and run that extra mile. Lose that extra lb of bodyweight. What's the worst that can happen?

As for me, I am going to enjoy my 'Indian burrito' tomorrow at my nephew's 3rd birthday party :)

P.S. This is an awesome post. Especially to motivate those in the 30+ age category

Saturday, October 19, 2013

High Bar

I have an ambitious set of goals for the immediate term i.e. the next 8-12 weeks. My goals, not all of them measurable and  in order of priority are -

1. Get stronger with specific focus on leg and back strength - To make it more objective, I want to get my back squat 1 rep max to at least 300 Lbs (136.5 Kg) and ambitiously, 140 Kg
2. Fix my clean technique - no specific weight goal. I just want to get it right
3. Improve fitness/conditioning - So that I don't huff and puff dragging my extra body weight around
4. Lose some fat - look good nekkid :) As shallow as that sounds, it is honestly something I want to achieve at some point

Goals #1,2,3 are very important to me. Goal #4 would be nice to have - I figure if I am committed and work towards the other goals, #4 would be an automatic by product

Catalyst Athletics, my current gym, should take care of putting me on the right track for #1 and #2. I am extremely lucky to have found such an awesome training facility and trainers, continuing after the solid foundation and great training I got at Xplore CrossFit, Seattle. I am also super focused, maintaining my discipline on nutrition and getting good sleep. So I am not going to worry too much - I am working hard and results will come, sooner rather than later

I did something stupid and experimented with a super low carb nutrition plan for a couple of weeks. It was really stupid - especially because it coincided with a really heavy squat training cycle at Catalyst. After three weeks of the low carb routine, I figured it wasn't worth it - not only because it was affecting my training and performance but also because eliminating a whole bunch of veggies and fruits from my nutrition felt like a crime.

Now, I am back to eating regularly and getting a good mix of macro and micro nutrients - veggies, starch, meat, eggs, nuts, fruits, some whey and other supplements (fish oil, vitamins). The only change I have made is eliminating dairy (my glass of whole milk for the day) except for a couple of sips of Kefir to get some probiotics in the system. The good thing is that sugar and grains continue to be strictly out - I am not even tempted by this stuff anymore.

So how do I achieve goal #4? My plan is simple - increase #hours of work/physical activity rather than reduce food to achieve a negative calorie balance while getting the nutrition I need to get stronger. I am getting about 8-10 hours of training at Catalyst every week. This is including warm up sets, rest between sets and stretching. In addition to this, I have started swimming/sprint intervals for about 2 hours a week - split over 3-4 days. In the last one week, results are encouraging - My squat load for regular work sets has increased over the last month and at the same time, I have also lost about 1.5 pounds bodyweight. It will be interesting to see how results progress as load increases with the next few weeks of the training cycle.

During the course of my next measurement period of 8-12 weeks, what will matter to me the most is how much I have progressed on goals #1 and #3. I am confident of achieving #2 with practice and #4 - well, it will happen. And, don't we all want that?

The bar is set. My plan will evolve and I will cross that bar - and I will get stronger and fitter at the end of it.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Keeping the Beast alive

Last weekend, I competed for the first time at BeastFest, a CrossFit competition hosted by Xplore CrossFit. It was so great to be back in Seattle and Xplore and meet all the folks there. While my performance in the competition was nothing to write home about ( I finished last and by quite a distance), the whole experience was special to me. For starters, it made me see where the bar is in terms of elite fitness - the quality of athletes at the event was truly awe inspiring. More importantly, this experience is going to be the 'ignition' to keep me going and training to the best level I can for my next training cycle.

If I look back at my training experience over the last year, there have been ebbs and flows. I have gone through periods of high and low motivation and hence, good and bad results. Every now and again when going through a bad phase or experiencing a rut, there would be this one 'spark' that has gotten me back on track. Watching the CrossFit games a few months ago was one. More often than not, this has come from watching a fellow athlete do something extraordinary, that normal guy at the gym who did something that made me say to myself 'I can be that guy'. I can't speak for everyone who trains out there but I definitely need re-ignition regularly. I have trained alone and done OK but need that other regular guy pushing me to do more and get better.

I experienced the power of community, social support and this 'spark' first hand at BeastFest. The motivation and support for every single athlete at BeastFest was incredible. I was struggling through event 3 which was a 12 minute AMRAP of 10 Thrusters @ 60K + run up and down Harbor Steps (roughly 50-60 steps) x 3 rounds. As I was struggling to complete my 10 thrusters for round 2, I was joined by a competitor who had completed his 3 rounds well under 7-8 minutes. He pushed me rep by rep for the Thrusters and step by step for the stair run. He didn't need to do that - he was probably tired and could have spent time recovering. Instead, he actually ran up and down the stairs with me and made sure I completed round 2. It was amazing - he pushed me to be better than I was!

The "Beast" in me is alive for now. When it is starting to fade out, I will reach out to my very own social support sphere to be my source of inspiration.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

How I grew to love 'The Squat' in 12 months

“You don’t like your current role (in your job) because you are not good at it” – This is what my reporting manager gave me as feedback almost a year ago during one of my performance reviews as I sat there complaining about how I was not enjoying work.

That statement makes a lot of sense, especially when I think back about how I used to hate ‘leg days’ at the gym. From the time I started college, wanted to look good and impress the ladies and started going to the gym, building muscle for me was all about the Bench Press, ‘Abs’ and bodyweight stuff like Push-ups and Pull-ups. Mark Rippetoe attributes this to us being very ‘handsy’ people – we like to work out on parts of our body we can see in a mirror. There is nothing super wrong about that - the Bench Press and bodyweight stuff can be important parts of your training program.

However this approach, combined with the absence of a sustained spell of strength training and periods of under-eating left me for the major part of the last 10 years with chicken legs, not too much of a backside and in general, lack of strength and mobility.

(borrowed this pic from some other blog)

I think I did a proper back squat with a barbell for the first time in 29 years when I joined Xplore CrossFit in Seattle last July (am not counting the quarter/half squat attempts with the Smith machine earlier). I started off pretty weak - I could barely get below parallel, I would get all kinds off aches and pains when I squatted, be sore for days after and progression was pretty slow. It was frustrating because I was working hard – I squatted regularly at the gym, ate clean and spent time every day at home trying to hold a squat position and get deeper for as long as possible. I would even take my conference calls for work from a squat position. After 6-9 months of training and as recent as March/April early this year, I was squatting heavier but progressing slowly, at 1 Kg a week or less for a 5x5 workout – I didn’t hate squat days as much but would still be more excited if Bench Press was part of my training than the Back Squat and certainly didn’t look forward to the Front Squat.

Today, I squat in some form for at least 100 reps in a week – free squats, warm up sets, Back, Front, Overhead, 5x5, 5x3, 1 rep max, with the Snatches and Cleans..... I don’t know if that is high or low. All I know is that I love it – Squat days are now my favorite days in the week. I think there are a few reasons for this change – One, my progression has started to accelerate and two, I am starting to see how squatting is helping me perform better, with daily activity, mobility, running as well as for pretty much everything I do at the gym like the Olympic lifts. I love squatting - even when I am not at the gym. I still get the little aches and pains, but I don’t get as sore.

Oh and also, I don’t suck at squatting – at least, not as much as I used to.

So when I ask myself -

  1. Am I satisfied that my 1 rep max for the Back Squat is 126Kg? Nope, I need to be squatting more. Next goal is at least 2x bodyweight
  2. Am I satisfied that my 1 rep max for the Back Squat has progressed from 82 Kg in October 2012 to 126 Kg now? Hell yeah!  I should be on track to hit 52 Kg for the calendar year
So going back to what my manager told me - If you are complaining about something, you probably suck at it. And if you don’t get better at it even a little at a time, you will continue to complain about it. If you get better at it enough, you might just grow to love it!