Monday, June 24, 2013

Is it muscle, or is it fat?

Here's every athlete's dream: eat all the pizza, ice cream, and chips you want, and any weight you gain will be all muscle.  Sound too good to be true?  Well, of course.  I already said it's a dream.  In the real world, if you don't eat properly, you gain fat, not muscle.  And sometimes even if you do everything according to the book, you still gain weight -- maybe muscle, maybe fat.
   One of the great ironies of exercise is that it causes too many people to get fatter, not thinner.  This is especially true of those who are just beginning exercise programs at the local mega gym.  They feel so incredibly energized by their workouts that they assume that they can eat whatever they want.  So, naturally, many of them eat whatever they want, often consuming far more extra calories than they burned off during the workouts.  Let's face it: consuming 500 calories is a lot easier than burning 500 calories.
   Okay, so life isn't quite fair.  But suppose you're a senior martial artist who trains regularly.  And let's suppose further that you've incorporated strength training into your training regimen, because pumping a little iron is extremely important even to aging athletes.  Finally, let's suppose you begin gaining weight.  Is the new weight all muscle?  Is it fat?  Or is it a little of each?
   There are two simple ways to decide.  1.  Flip a coin, since any answer you give yourself is as accurate as another.  2.  Step on a bathroom scale that measures body-fat content in addition to weight.  I prefer method #2, because it gives me facts, not guesses.  And out of all the body-fat measuring schemes I've examined, this one is by far the most user-friendly.
   For well over 20 years now I've used a Tanita scale.  The folks at Tanita aren't paying me to say good things about their scales, and they haven't given me any freebees to tout the brand.  So what you're getting here is only what I believe: every athlete's bathroom or training room should include a Tanita scale.
   Tanita scales measure fat using a process called Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis, or BIA.   You step on the scale, and a small electrical impulse passes from one foot to the other.  No, you don't feel a thing.  But while the current passes through your body, it distinguishes between fat and muscle through a series of complex calculations that some scientist with a PhD might understand.  Fortunately, you and I don't need to know the math.  All we have to do is read the numbers.  First you get total body weight, and then you get  your percentage of body fat.  If you buy one of the slightly more expensive scales, you also get a third statistic: your body's water content [generally above 50%, since we're built mostly of water].
   How often you step on your Tanita scale is up to you.  I use it every day, because I like to track the effects of certain foods on my body weight and water content.  But over longer periods the scale helps me understand how my weight gain or loss is affecting my muscle mass.  The more muscle mass the better, of course, because among other things more muscle means a faster metabolism, and that translates into a more efficient fat-fighting machine.
   By the way, the Tanita scale comes with a useful booklet that helps you understand what your body-fat percentage should be.  For a 66-year-old male like me, the average healthy range is something like 13-25%.  For women of the same age the range is more like 24-35%.  Some Tanita scales also have an Athlete mode for those who are into serious training, and this mode does some extra calculations to reflect the fact that athletes of any age will likely have lower body-fat readings than non-athletes.
   Are the Tanita scales accurate?  Since I'm not a scientist, I can't answer this question authoritatively.  So I'll hedge a bit.  Once you've established a baseline figure -- let's say it's 14% body fat -- you can keep that number in mind and see how it changes from week to week or month to month.  All you're really after anyway is the direction of your body-fat content.  Are you gaining muscle, or are you gaining fat?  By the way, it's important to use the scale at roughly the same time each day, because the readings will change throughout the day as you exercise, eat, and drink. 
   Bottom line: training religiously is the key to peak performance in the martial arts, and part of your training program should be tracking whether your hard work is successfully keeping body fat under control.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The form is the thing

What you call it depends upon the martial art that you study: poomsae, kata, form, or any of several other names.  But since most tournaments simply list it as "forms," that's what I'll do for this present discussion.  A form is a meticulously choreographed set of martial-arts techniques -- punches, kicks, blocks, stances, and such -- and represents serious combat against a number of imagined opponents.  In my view, the form is also the solid foundation upon which senior martial artists must build their training programs.
   Since I'll be turning 67 this summer, I can no longer handle the kinds of training sessions that introduced me to Taekwondo more than 40 years ago.  Yes, a few things have changed -- cardio fitness, endurance, strength, flexibility, and speed among them.  And since I want to continue my training for many years to come, I would be foolish to disregard the obvious physical changes that come with age.  So I continually modify my training program to respect those changes while pushing as hard as I can.
   The one element of training that doesn't change, though, is my emphasis on forms.  Each form that you learn from white belt through the various black-belt ranks is a masterful lesson in how to apply proper techniques in a combat setting.  Look at it this way: each time you execute a form properly it's like having a master instructor guiding you through key techniques and combinations.  That's because each form you learn was created by master instructors of a given style in order to standardize training throughout the world.  So the Sipjin [5th Dan] form that I practice in Kukkiwon Taekwondo should look the same as the Sipjin form being practiced by someone in Korea, Chile, or Australia.
   Essentially forms represent a comprehensive curriculum for each martial art.  Once you have learned a variety of techniques from your master, you learn how to execute them properly in forms.  You begin with simple forms that rely on basic techniques, and you slowly move on to more complex forms that require a far greater understanding of how advanced techniques can be used in combination against multiple opponents. Along the way, forms deliver two important lessons:
       -- Discipline: a form isn't worth doing if it's lazy, sloppy, or casual.  You must master each movement and deliver each technique as though your life depends on it.  After all, the techniques of the form could very well become a matter of life and death in actual combat.
       -- The power of meditation: in order to execute a form seriously, you must close your mind to the clutter of noises, actions, and intrusive thoughts that surround your inner self.  In my view, practicing forms is an elegant form of meditation that empowers you to forget about "stuff" and to focus on the present moment.
   Since I'm on the topic, I should tell you what a form IS NOT.  It is not an item on a checklist to get you from white belt to black belt in, let's say, two years.  Yes, some schools crank out black belts at an alarming rate, and many of those black belts haven't reached adolescence yet.  But a serious martial-arts school doesn't rely on a checklist in order to advance students from one rank to the next.  Instead, it relies on the student's willingness to push himself or herself to the limit and upon his or her ability to master the necessary techniques.  Knowing all the forms required to reach 1st Dan doesn't mean a student is ready to wear a black belt.  But mastering forms is an important step toward a lifetime of success in the martial arts.
   Do you know of senior-friendly schools in your area?  If so, let me know about them, and I'll be happy to mention them in this blog.  In the meantime, enjoy practicing those forms.