Category Archives: The Mind/Body Connection

Zen Fitness

“Absorb what is useful, discard what is useless, and add what is uniquely your own.” – Bruce Lee

Throughout my life, I’ve experimented with dozens of different exercise modalities.

I’ve used barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine balls, sandbags, and just about every other heavy object I could think of to try lifting.

I’ve done parkour, martial arts, Marathons and yoga. I even tried a Triathlon.

I believe my various experiences have helped me become a more well-rounded physical specimen, but after all of those things, I always come back to the simplest, most direct way of training I’ve ever known – calisthenics.

I love calisthenics training because it requires nothing more than your body, your mind and your warrior spirit.

You don’t need to buy anything, go anywhere or put on any special clothing. Anybody can start right now.

As Maya Angelou once said, “Ain’t nothing to it but to do it.” (Or was that Ronnie Coleman?)

There’s a lot to love about calisthenics, but my favorite thing is how it keeps you in the present. When you’re working on developing a new skill, you need to give all of your attention to the task at hand.

When you are completely focused on your training, the division between body and mind breaks down and everything else seems to fall away.

This phenomenon has been called different things by different people. Whether you call it mindfulness, samadhi, flow state or any other name, it’s a beautiful thing when it happens.

This is actually the subject of my first book, We’re Working Out! A Zen Approach to Everyday Fitness.

Over the years, I’ve learned and absorbed many things from different places, taken what’s worked for me, and used it all to develop my own theories and methods, which continue to adapt and take shape before my eyes. I’m constantly working to refine and expand my movement repertoire and I still look for inspiration in new and varied places.

I owe a thank-you to anyone I’ve ever trained, trained with, worked with, worked-out with or known in any capacity whatsoever. Some people have obviously had a greater impact than others, but everyone I’ve ever interacted with (even electronically!) has in some way shaped who I am today.

The video below shows a variety of exercises I’ve picked up (and in some cases modified) from different bodyweight disciplines, all blended into seamless, flowing movement.

Be present for your training, have fun and find your own path.

Playing With Movement

Movement is movement. Whether you’re practicing calisthenics, doing yoga, or lifting weights, the body moves how the body moves.

There are only so many ways that our joints can bend and flex, yet when you start playing with variations on basic movement patterns, you’ll find the possibilities are limitless.

Changing one small aspect of an exercise can vary it just enough to increase the intensity. Combining moves can also create new challenges.

Get Some Play
Working out is best approached with a joyous attitude and an open mind. Movement offers an opportunity for growth and self-discovery, but it’s also supposed to be fun! Take the time to really be present for your workout and feel what your body is doing. Exercise should be one of the least stressful parts of your day. Don’t over-think things – just move!

What’s In A Name?
A lot of people ask me what I call some of the unusual calisthenics moves that I do. Many of the moves have names, but other times I don’t have an answer. It really doesn’t matter what you call things though. That which we call a kip-up by any other name would still look as sweet.

Check out the video below to see me playing with some variations on familiar moves like handstands and back bridges. Plus a few other things that I don’t even know what to call!

If you want to get sandals like the ones I’m wearing in the video, check out Xero Shoes.

Death To Cardio

So long, Stairmaster!

After racing the NYC Triathlon last week, I’ve decided that I’m never doing cardio again.

In fact, I actually stopped doing cardio workouts a long time ago.

You may have seen me running, swimming and biking in this recent video clip, but that wasn’t cardio training – it was skill practice.

In the context of my overall training schedule, I don’t even see the race itself as cardio. It was a one-off endurance challenge, and really more mental than physical.

Trading Cardio
The difference between seeing your workout as “cardio” vs. seeing it as “practice” may be a subtle distinction, but I believe it is an extremely important one. People who “do cardio” tend to have one objective in mind: weight loss. As I’ve discussed before, exercise alone is not a very effective way to lose weight (you have to eat less crap in order to do that!), but the mindset you bring to any activity can greatly impact your experience.

Swimming for sure!

Rather than forcing yourself to simulate movement on a piece of machinery for a set amount of time, a better way to approach your training might be to work on skill improvement. While there are certainly benefits to “gym cardio” (improved circulation, increased cardiac output, higher oxygen uptake/utilization efficiency), part of what makes exercise worth doing is the activity itself. I personally never met anyone who genuinely enjoys an hour alone on the stationary bike, but it’s fun and exciting to do something like a triathlon – and all of us have that potential.

Skill Power
You can become a perfectly good runner without ever worrying about how many calories you burned, what your target heart rate is or even knowing exactly how much distance you’ve covered. And you’ll probably enjoy the process a whole lot more without wasting mental space on trivialities. Treat your workout as skill practice and the shift in perspective turns any health benefits into an added bonus. You might even forget you’re working out and start having some old-fashioned fun!

Don’t get me wrong – exercise isn’t always gummy bears and double rainbows, but it shouldn’t be torturous either. There are plenty of times when I feel challenged during a workout, but pushing through those uncomfortable moments leads to a better understanding of my body – as well as personal growth.

I firmly believe that any “fit” person ought to be able to run a few miles or swim to shore should they find themselves in such a predicament (in addition to being able to do some pull-ups, of course!). Besides, if you focus on improving at physical skills, you’re inevitably going to get in better shape along the way. Having a good body is nice, but being physically capable is empowering.

Calisthenics and Body Awareness

There is a lot to love about calisthenics and bodyweight training – besides being fun and cost-effective, zero equipment workouts are also convenient for travel.

My favorite aspect of bodyweight training, however, is how it teaches you to become aware of the subtle nuances of movement.

Using machines instead of your bodyweight (or free weights) neglects this key aspect of fitness. Don’t even get me started on people who read magazines or watch television during their “workout.”

Lost in Space
I am continually amazed at how out of touch the average person is with their body. For example, when I ask a new client to try moving their shoulder blades without moving their arms, they usually cannot find the coordination to make it happen. However, these types of subtle movements can be the difference between learning to do a pull-up correctly and injuring yourself.

Proprioception refers to the sensory ability to feel different parts of the body moving through space in relation to each other. I almost always do some yoga with my strength training clients to help with their proprioceptive capabilities. Only once somebody truly learns to feel how their body moves, can they make significant gains in strength.

Clearly I’m not a fan of exercise machines, especially when compared to bodyweight strength training or weight training, but those of us who feel that way are on the fringes. Go into any commercial gym and you’re bound to see way more machines than free weights. In some of these places, you’re lucky if there is even a pull-up bar or an open space to do push-ups.

Throw out your treadmill!

Rise of the Machines
Most commercial fitness facilities are not designed to get you fit – they are designed to get your money. The fancy looking machines you see in these clubs are all hype. They don’t work as well as bodyweight exercises, but they sure do look high-tech! Sadly, that’s enough to trick the average person into shelling out lots of money for a gym membership they’ll probably never even use anyway.

This doesn’t mean you can’t sculpt nice looking muscles using machines, it’s just a ridiculous way to go about it. Selectorized fitness equipment movement patterns are not natural, and will have less carryover into real life activities. Plus you’re much less likely to understand the movement of the human body if you’re never really moving! If everything you do for your workout involves sliding a fixed piece of machinery along a predetermined path, you’re just going through the motions. You’re not truly creating movement.

Less is More
While modern exercise equipment has only existed for a few decades, human beings have achieved fantastic physiques since the days of the ancient Greeks. If you want to build a better body, the only piece of equipment you’ll need is something you already have – YOU! Stop making excuses and start working out!


For more information, check out my book, Pushing The Limits! – Total Body Strength With No Equipment.

Avoiding Injuries in Strength Training

Anyone who’s worked out consistently for long enough has no doubt had to deal with an injury at some point. Setbacks can be frustrating, but if you train hard, eventually some type of injury may be inevitable.

In spite of over two decades of strength training, however, I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid anything serious. The worst I’ve had to deal with was a strained rotator cuff, some mild tendinitis and a few cuts, scrapes and bruises (mostly from freerunning and parkour). If you train smart, you should be able to avoid any serious injuries as well.

Listen to Your Body

One of the most common questions I get asked is, “Is it okay to work out every day?” There is no universal answer that applies to everyone, as individual conditioning varies greatly from person to person. As a general rule, however, let your body rest if you feel sore, achy or tired. If you want to work out and you’re still sore from a previous session, you might take a day to focus on flexibility or work around your sore muscles using a split routine. Another option is to simply do a low-intensity active recovery workout.

You might not always like what it has to say, but listening to your body is the best way to avoid injury. When you have aches and pains, you need to back off. Pay attention to how your body responds to different training programs and act accordingly.

Balancing Act
It is important to make sure that your strength training routine doesn’t favor any one movement pattern too heavily. The phrase antagonistic balance refers to maintaining a healthy symmetry between opposing muscle groups. If your routine is all push-ups and no pull-ups, you’ll likely wind up with shoulder problems and poor posture. Likewise, neglecting your glutes, hamstrings and lower back can also lead to joint pain and postural issues. This is why deadlifts and/or back bridges should be a mainstay of any fitness regimen.

Gradual Progress
People who get injured in training usually do so because they attempted something far outside of their capabilities. While ambition is a great asset, you’ve got to be objective about what your body is realistically capable of handling. I’m all for pushing the boundaries of human performance, but you have to do so gradually!

Check out my master list of exercises to get an idea of how to progress intelligently in the world of bodyweight strength training. You’ll typically want to get to about 10 reps of a given exercise before moving on to harder progressions. For static holds (like planks and L-sits), aim for a 30 second hold or longer.

Live and Learn
Injuries may sometimes be unavoidable, but I believe we are all ultimately responsible for our own fate. Be smart, stay humble and pick yourself up when you fall. If you do get injured, perhaps you can learn from the experience and avoid repeating your mistakes. Remember, an expert is just a beginner who didn’t quit.

The Rest/Pause Method

The mind is the most powerful muscle in the body, for without the mind, your physical muscles are useless. The rest/pause method will test the limits of both your body and your mind, while allowing you to push your strength and endurance to new heights.

The rest/pause method involves taking short breaks during a long set in order to get more total reps. Instead of stopping after you reach a pre-determined number of, let’s say, push-ups, just rest at the top with your arms locked out once fatigue sets in. Take a breath or two, then keep pushing out one rep at a time, with several seconds in between reps if need be. This will allow you to push the boundaries of muscular failure.

Incorporataing the Rest/Pause Method

Push-ups are one of the best exercises to use this technique with, but rest/pausing works great with pull-ups, squats and even muscle-ups.

You can use this method when training with weights as well. Pick a weight that you can normally manage for 10 reps, then try to rest/pause your way to another 10 reps without setting the weight down. Make sure to use a spotter.

After an intense session using the rest/pause method, it’s important to have a rest day or a recovery workout the following day. Rest/pause workouts are best used as a shocking technique, so they shouldn’t be done more than once or twice a week.

The power of using your mind and taking it one rep at a time can often lead to groundbreaking workouts. The rest pause method recently allowed me to set a new personal best in muscle-ups. Luckily, I was able to get it on film!

Check out my brother Danny rest/pausing his way to an epic set of over 100 push-ups!

It All Starts in the Mind

Photo courtesy of brightroom.com

You can have anything you want. It all starts with your mind.

Exercise is the most clear cut example of how we can use our minds to manifest the reality of our choosing. Once you put that mental focus into action and start a consistent workout routine, your body starts to change right before your eyes.

If you have the mental focus to be in tune with your body, and you practice using that body, you can actually effect physical change in yourself. How cool is that? Really think about it.

The amazing thing is, everything else in life is pretty much the same way. Anything that you give your full mental focus to can be yours. That doesn’t mean it’s going to come easy, but if you want it badly enough, and you take the necessary steps towards that path, things that may have seemed impossible can become possible!

There were many challenges I once deemed out of my reach, but have since overcome; muscle-ups, human flags and one arm chin-ups were all exercises that once intimidated me. When I doubted my ability to perform these feats, I shut myself off from my potential. Once I realized that, however, I began to adjust my beliefs and start taking action to manifest my dreams. With practice and discipline I have since trained my body to do those feats and many others. And you can too!

Want a better body? It’s yours for the taking.

Pain and Discomfort – Knowing the Difference

When conducting a personal training session, one of the worst things to hear from your client is, “this hurts!” After all, I am there to help them, not to mess them up!

However, a lot of the time when a client complains that something “hurts,” what’s really happened is that they’ve confused pain and discomfort. Pain is something to avoid; discomfort, on the other hand, is something to accept. Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference.

Experiencing a burning sensation in your muscles (and/or lungs) during exercise is common, and should not be mistaken for pain. Once you can accept this and get on with what you need to do, you can really start to get somewhere. A common characteristic amongst great athletes is a high tolerance for physical discomfort.

Soreness following a workout – even extreme soreness – can be unpleasant, but it doesn’t mean that you are injured or over-training. When people experience the severe soreness that results from doing a serious leg workout for the first time, it’s not uncommon to be concerned that something has gone wrong. Rest assured this is not pain, just discomfort.

Real pain, if you are ever unlucky enough to experience it, doesn’t leave any vagueness as to its nature. True, you’ll hear the occasional story of the guy (or girl) who walks around on a broken foot for 3 weeks without realizing it, but those stories are exceptional because when bones break and muscle tears happen, it’s usually painfully clear what has occurred.

When performing a given exercise, you may get a twinge of something minor that has gone awry; this can usually be fixed with adjustments to your form or changing the resistance. However, there are certain movements that can be problematic due to contraindications that may exist from previous injuries – which is one reason why it’s great to hire a trainer if you have special needs or if you are particularly concerned about injuring yourself. Otherwise, use common sense, just don’t wimp out when the going gets tough.

Rethinking Running Sneakers

The beach is a great place for barefoot running.

I’ve run many races over the years, usually wearing high-tech sneakers and my heart rate monitor, while meticulously selecting the best running playlist for my iPod. When I run the Brooklyn half marathon next month, however, I am going to try something new; I’m planning to leave all those things at home.


A few months ago I made this post about running sneakers, in which I proposed that high-tech footwear was ideal for safety and performance. However, I have since come to reconsider my opinion on the matter.

I’ve been a proponent of forefoot running for a long time, but my recent experiments with barefoot running have led me to realize how highly cushioned shoes decrease your ability to sense the way your foot is landing; this is potentially the root of most running injuries.

Of course barefoot running is great if you’re on the grass or the beach, but I’ve even gone barefoot at the track. I still prefer to wear something on my feet for road-running, but it doesn’t need to be anything fancy–just something comfortable and lightweight. In fact, the less cushioning the better. The same way that wearing thick gloves will decrease your dexterity with your hands, wearing overly cushioned sneakers can make your feet heavy and clumsy.

I'm planning to run 13.1 miles in these!

The reason so many people tend to get running injuries is more often poor form than poor footwear. Running barefoot or in minimal footwear will quickly improve your running form for the simple reason that bad form actually hurts when you don’t have an inch of padding under your feet. While that padding can be enough to desensitize you to the impact, it isn’t enough to protect your joints. Thin soled shoes will force you to be light on your feet, which will likely improve your speed as well as your safety.


Lately I’ve been running in Vans slip-ons, a casual sneaker that almost feels more like a slipper. They are very comfortable and as an added bonus, I don’t ever have to worry about my shoelaces coming untied! I might get some weird looks at the start line for the Brooklyn half, but I’ve never been one to let that bother me.

(Editor’s note: Check out this post on running the Brooklyn Half Marathon in Vans to find out how that went.)

Beginning Parkour Training

I am a big proponent of personal training–not just for my clients–but for myself, too!

I’m always eager to learn new ways to exercise and have fun, so when my friend Rick Seedman of the Bar-barians offered to teach me about parkour, I jumped at the chance. (Literally!)

About Parkour
Parkour comes from a French word meaning “obstacle course.” Basically, it involves navigating an urban landscape with quickness, efficiency and grace. As Rick says, “Parkour is about expressing yourself through movement.”

Parkour training is playful and less structured than most formal types of exercise, but there are a few basic moves that all traceurs (that’s what parkour practitioners like to be called) should be comfortable with.

Precision Jumping

One key aspect of parkour is precision jumping. Just like the name implies, this movement involves jumping and landing (often onto or off of an object) with the utmost precision–something I am still working on!

Underbars

An underbar involves passing between a narrow, horizontal opening by jumping through the obstacle and landing on the other side. The most common situations to use underbars are passing through rails, trees, or scaffolding.


Rolling

Rolling is used primarily to spread the impact of a jump throughout your body (so you don’t take it all in your knees and ankles). Rolling also allows for a smooth transition into the next movement.

I just began parkour training, so keep that in mind when watching the video clip below:
httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VT0AvG4ueMU