Shut Up, Kryptonite!

In all my travels, I’ve yet to meet someone who isn’t at least VAGUELY familiar with Superman.  Even folks who aren’t into comic books and such will have at least some idea of who this iconic superhero is.  And why wouldn’t they?  Incredibly powerful, but still noble and true…  The best of all things with none of the bad.  Truth, Justice and the American Way… (you’d never guess that Superman is actually Canadian!)

But my point is, as strong and powerful as Superman may be, he still has a weakness: Kryptonite.  Able to weaken and even kill him, kryptonite was the one thing that Superman could never overcome.  And even though it’s a comic book, there’s an important lesson, there.

The importance behind how hard you train should be directly related to the fact that no matter how strong or skilled you get, there will always be someone stronger.  That’s just a fact of life.  But by giving your training the maximum effort you can muster, you ensure that you can continue to grow and progress, and should the day ever come that you face an opponent, your odds of getting out in one piece are much better.

One good example of this is Diabetes.  Diabetes is my kryptonite.  It weakens me, leaves me vulnerable and gets in the way of even some of the simplest joys in life.  But I’ve trained and conditioned myself for decades to overcome and outsmart my kryptonite. And through training, education and help from the appropriate healthcare professionals, I’m much better prepared to deal with it (even though at times, it still weakens me!)

Sometimes overcoming our weaknesses means taking steps and pursuing treatments that we personally don’t approve of.  I can certainly attest to having been prescribed medications or been put on diets or treatment regiments that I haven’t liked or wanted to do. But sometimes getting over one’s kryptonite requires swallowing our pride, and recognizing that it’s for the greater good.  It’s not a weakness to accept these treatments or the help that comes with them.  In fact, recognizing that you need the help and accepting it takes more strength than we usually care to acknowledge.  Especially if you find yourself in a life situation where there are many loved ones who depend and count on you.

There are always ways to be fit, get stronger and stay healthy.  The trick is finding what works for you, then sticking with it no matter whether you like or not.  Because no matter what personal kryptonite you face today, there may be bigger fish to fry tomorrow. ☯

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Go With The Flow

Energy is a strange thing.  We can’t see it, under most circumstances.  We fail to acknowledge its presence and some even doubt its existence. But everything is made of energy. From the eraser on your pencil to the very core of your physical being, it’s all energy!

George Mattson, a karate practitioner from the United States, once wrote, “A workout should be like a painting.  Each one has a characteristic of its own.”  The meaning behind this is that a classroom workout is much like a painting as well.  Each and every student is a separate characteristic of the class as a whole and lends one more piece to the workout.

Each and every student in the class affects the overall tone of the workout.  Think about it; have you ever participated in a class where the instructor was less than motivated?  Maybe he or she had a low, baritone voice with no enthusiasm behind it…  You can easily guess how motivating THAT would be to the students.

The same can be said about the students themselves.  If every student doesn’t put forth their best effort, they drag on the overall energy of the class.  The top students will no doubt put forth their best effort and potentially raise the bar, if you will.  But it’s up to each and every student to put in his or her maximum effort.

We all have bad days.  Some days we may be feeling ill, tired or simply lack the motivation to give it our all. This leaves us with two options: dig deep to find the energy needed to get through the night’s training, or take a break and stay home.  There’s no shame in that.  Everyone needs a break on occasion, so long as it doesn’t become extended or start interfering with your overall progress. ☯

“Strike First. Strike Hard. No Mercy!”

Ah, who didn’t enjoy the original 1984 movie The Karate kid?  I was six years old at the time, and starting get into the martial arts groove.  The movie described a scenario where the underdog was able to train and develop himself to become a champion, a scenario that pretty much described me to a T (minus the champion part, but I still trained and developed myself).

A new series came out last year called Cobra Kai. It takes place thirty-four years after the events of The Karate Kid.  If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it, especially if you grew up in that decade.  It airs on YouTube.  The Cobra Kai had a slogan in their dojo: Strike First.  Strike Hard. No Mercy.

Depending on what side of the argument you fall on, some people believe that the protagonist in the movie was the ACTUAL villain for winning a tournament against the antagonist with an illegal kick to the face (I won’t apologize for providing a spoiler to a movie that came out thirty-five years ago!)  No matter what way you chose to view their story, the Cobra Kai’s slogan holds a reasonable level of merit.

First and foremost, I don’t agree with the “no mercy” part.  I believe that being merciful shows us our humanity and sets us apart from the evil we like to pretend doesn’t exist.  But the concept of striking first and striking hard is an important one in the martial arts.

I often like to compare most martial arts aspects to real-life scenarios because, well… the real world is where you would have the most practical and violent application of whatever fighting art you may be studying.  We want to avoid these types of confrontations as much as possible, but should they happen we need to be prepared to respond.  After all, why do we train so intensely if not to protect others and ourselves?

A lot of fighting styles teach students certain techniques that are intended to stun and/or surprise the opponent in order to allow the student to deliver the power strike that will end the confrontation.  A good example of such a technique is the jab.  Throwing a jab at someone allows you to set yourself up for the second power punch.  That’s a cute concept on paper (or in the dojo, I guess) but what if the only strike you get against an opponent is the first one?

I wrote a post some time ago about the actual length of a fight in the real world, and what the realities of such a fight usual are.  So here’s some enlightenment: in a real fight, you’ll have a chance to deliver one, maybe two strikes before you either get struck yourself or need to get the hell out of the way!  That’s it!  The concept of a long, drawn out battle where both participants are blocking and exchanging blows for long periods of time simply doesn’t happen.  

First of all, unless you’re a professional fighter who trains to fight for long periods, such as a boxer, you’ll become exhausted within minutes.  Fighting tires you out, and doing it in the streets when it isn’t planned or expected can be even worse.  And since the idea is to simply end the threat so you can get out of there, more than a few strikes will usually decide whether or not you’re going to be the victor or if you need to run.

That’s why it’s important to make every strike count.  If you intend on doing a “one-two” combination, both strikes should have equal force and power.  If you only have time to deliver one strike, you want it to be as powerful as the second one was intended.  It only makes sense.

Although you want to try and avoid physical confrontations as much as possible, if there is no other option and you get backed into a corner you want to make sure you avoid injury and be the one to get home safely.  Strike first and strike hard. ☯

F = ma

Ten years ago, I was training with a couple of colleagues and we were using boxing gloves and punching bags.  As I led them through some drills, one of the guys I was training with asked me how it was that I could strike with such force and veracity, considering I was about the same weight and size as he.  I ended up explaining the concept of what makes an actual strike within the martial arts…

You see, a strike is simply a strike.  This is true of any fighting art, but the reality goes much deeper than we assume. I’ve seen 90-pound “weaklings” deliver a knockout punch to individuals many times their size and mass.  I’ve seen “behemoths” that couldn’t throw a proper punch to save their lives.  So what makes the difference?

The formula I’ve used for today’s title is one of the fundamental formulas of physics. Basically it means that Force is measured by multiplying Mass by Acceleration.  The layman’s explanation for this formula is that is doesn’t matter the size or power of the object performing the strike, provided the acceleration and technique are correct.

Think about it for a second…  If I palmed a 9mm bullet and tossed it at you, you’d likely look down at where the bullet struck and wonder what was wrong with me.  It’s nothing but a tiny piece of brass, affixed to a metal shell filled with a small amount of gunpowder.  However, if I accelerate that bullet to the 1500 feet per second that it comes out of a pistol, suddenly you find your life in jeopardy.  It’s the same concept with a punch or kick.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re tiny or a massive weight lifter (except the bulky weight lifter likely has trouble moving freely).

Once you recognize these facts, performing powerful strikes becomes child’s play. So long as you factor in proper technique, bone alignment and stance, your strikes will become more powerful, regardless of strength or power.  But it takes practice.  Much like anything else, you have to be taught the proper way and then… practice, practice, practice! ☯

Allow Me To “Weigh” In On Your Fitness…

Time is a fleeting thing. It’s the one commodity that humanity can’t create or make more of, so when we run short of time it tends to be firmly and distinctly out of our control. But despite that fact, the amount of time we have in a day is fixed. So one would be inclined to think that we would plan and organize our day based on that fact. At least in regards to most people’s fitness routine, this is rarely the case.

“I don’t have the time…” This has to be, hands down, my favourite excuse. And my most hated one. And it is an excuse, because no matter how hectic your day may be, no matter how busy your schedule, there is ALWAYS a small period of time somewhere in your day that will allow you to work on your fitness. Wake up five minutes earlier in the morning and hammer out ten push-ups, ten sit-ups and twenty five jumping jacks. That’s it! Start with that. Granted, that won’t get you ripped like some of the athletes you may see on television, but it will jump start your day, encourage and increase blood flow, get your metabolism started and help you through the rigours of your day.

I was visited by an old friend recently, one who works in the same field as I do. It was an unexpected visit and I hadn’t seen him in months going on a year’s time. We stepped down to my basement where I have an open area I use as an at-home dojo/workout area. I sat down on a futon that sort of slants downward towards the backrest. It’s only moderately comfortable and sometimes requires effort to get off of.

I will freely admit that a person’s weight can be attributed to a number of different factors and is rarely ever the first thing I notice on someone. But considering that my friend looked markedly different than he had months prior made it a difficult fact to overlook. He and I took one look at the futon and both realized simultaneously that if he sat in that thing he wouldn’t be able to get up from it unassisted. He opted instead to have a seat on the solid weight bench I had placed next to the couch. The back was raised at better than 45 degrees and made an adequate alternative. As he sat, his gut bulged out from between his items of clothing. His breathing seemed slightly laboured and his pants appeared to be strangling parts of a man that should never be strangled (if you get my meaning).

It was heartbreaking. This man had done karate with me in his teens, back in New Brunswick. He had played hockey, golf and spent summers camping and kayaking. He took stock of his positioning and realized he could breath easier if he sat back and relieved the pressure on his abdomen.

I have this personal policy about never asking someone about their weight and/or fitness unless they ask, but considering I’ve known this guy for most of his life, I felt I needed to offer some advice. I asked him what he had been doing with himself in recent months. He replied by telling me about his work schedule, time spent camping with his family and what game his favourite hockey team was in.

I let him go on for a few minutes and when he was done, I said, “I think you know that’s not what I mean… What have you been doing to get yourself into shape?” The fact I said “get into shape” and not “to keep in shape” was not lost on him, and he cast his eyes downward to the floor. I told him that my intention wasn’t to make him feel bad or shame him, but considering his line of work, being in good, fit physical condition was rather important. He essentially explained that he worked long shifts and that when he got home, he just wanted to crash on the couch and do nothing; a feeling that as a Type 1 Diabetic, I know all too well. He also explained that while home, he contributed his time to his significant other and he didn’t feel he had time to workout. Boy, what a self-destructive way to think…

Folks, there will always be something getting in the way of proper fitness. Especially if you let it! Whether it’s your work, your family or just sheer fatigue, something will ALWAYS be there to prevent you from achieving the fitness level you need. Not necessarily the fitness level you want, but the one you NEED! You gotta move, folks! You can eat twenty pounds of kale a week, and I promise you that your health will still falter if you don’t get yourself off the couch and get moving!

Remember the formula I’ve blogged about in previous posts: everything living has some form of movement. Movement creates energy. Energy sustains life. You can’t have one without the others. There are days that my Diabetes has me so exhausted I have difficulty getting myself off the bed. When blood sugars run rampant and adjustments have to be made, all I want to do is curl into a tight little ball and go to sleep. But giving myself that extra little push of determination, I’m able to make my way to the scheduled karate class, or lift some weights, or bring my son around the neighbourhood on the bicycle.

The trick is to understand that fatigue and pain are temporary. But a faltered health that jeopardizes your health and overall life may be quite a bit more difficult to come back from. Most people think that once they get in shape, their work is done. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ultimately, it’s not enough to reach a certain level of fitness; you also have to maintain it. And in order to do that, you need to get off the couch and get at something. You can still watch your hockey game, but maybe do it on a stationary bike or with some free weights. Get your kids and your spouse involved! Speaking from experience, my wife has hammered through a number of workouts with me. She’s a trooper! And of course, my son mimics every little thing he sees me do, so that part is usually easy.

Make a start. That’s it, just start! There are tons of “body weight only” workouts on the web that you can download, so buying equipment and weights isn’t even necessary. As my brother in law has often said, “why put off until tomorrow the workout you could do today.”

“But I Don’t Wanna Train With A White Belt…”

Some of the masters in Japan used to have a saying: “Black belts don’t sweat.” Not only is this an incredibly inaccurate statement, it’s an ignorant one as well. Reaching black belt level is genuinely only the tip of the iceberg and the beginning of one’s in-depth training in the martial arts. My Sensei used to say that passing your black belt test was a way to finally and formally ask your Sensei to teach you karate. That perspective always stuck with me.

But the sweating perspective is one that has been circulated and that I’ve heard on occasion during my time in Japan. What I have found over the years, both in Japan and in Canada, is that advanced students will often have a stigma against students of a lower rank. Especially white belts.

Some schools have an established standard in which green or blue belts will take time to provide introductory instructions to new students and white belts. This is reasonable, since black belts and the head instructor are likely to be smaller in number than lower ranked students. So for the most part, it’s a matter of structuring. Which is fine.

The problem begins when one holds any sort of stigma against lower ranked belts simply for the sake of their inexperience. I’ve seen some advanced belts who have made their feelings clear, “my forms and techniques are way too advanced to be spending time with a white belt…” Terrible, terrible…

I’m reminded of a story that originated out of a school related to my style, in the United States. They put on a seminar and were teaching a variety of techniques and weapons and students could partner up or work alone and learn a little bit from every station. At one point, an older gentleman (I wouldn’t begin to guess at his age) came into the dojo wearing a white belt. He began stretching and warming up, and I noticed a number of younger students chuckling among themselves and making jokes. It seemed the majority of students were of the opinion that the man was too old to be starting karate and that his presence at the afternoon’s class was a waste of time.

We paired off for some light sparring at one point and a green belt was left with the old white belt as a partner. It was almost like one of those scenarios where you get chosen last during a dodgeball game… You could tell the green belt felt pretty confident about his odds and squared off with a smirk in his face.

I won’t bore you with the play-by-play of how the match went, but I will tell you this: the old white belted man kicked the living s&*t out of the green belt and made him yield! We came to find out that the old man was actually a master from Okinawa who had attended the seminar. He had a personal philosophy against the ranking system and chose not to wear a black belt. The look on the green belt’s face was priceless.

The lesson here is that there is always a lesson. That is to say, no matter what rank one holds, you can always learn from someone higher. You can always learn from someone lower. Some of the best lessons I’ve learned have come from training with lower ranked belts. Especially since their lack of experience often provides an unpredictability that we often don’t get, through structured martial arts. In the real world, things won’t always be structured and will rarely be rehearsed. So take the lessons where and when you can get them, and don’t be afraid to give up some of your time to teach when needed. In fact, the martial arts ladder requires it. You only get what you’re willing to give. And don’t forget that at one time or another, you WERE a white belt…

I’ve taken a break from writing about my strange odyssey for the next couple of days, since I’m essentially enjoying some down time and have nothing pertaining to the journey happening until next week. But rest assured I’ll keep you all updated once things get back into the swing of it! ☯

No Pain, No Gain! Some Pain, Though…

Everyone wants to seem like they’re tough. Most training regiments encourage the aspect of “push through the pain” and many will follow this credo a little too literally. Almost to the point where some people will cause serious injury or even aggravate existing ones in order to continue training.

The most common injury that we deal with in the martial arts (besides the occasional bloody nose or bruise) is pulled muscles (sometimes referred to as a “strained muscle”). This is what happens when any given muscle is overused, overstretched or torn. For the most part, these injuries are minor and will subside after a few days, provided the practitioner takes appropriate steps to help the injury heal. In some extreme cases however, the injury can become aggravated and require medical attention.

According to a post published by Harvard Health Publishing, doctors often classify pulled muscles under three categories:

  • Grade I Strain: In this mild strain, only a few muscle fibres are stretched or torn. Although the injured muscle is tender and painful, it has normal strength;
  • Grade II Strain: This is a moderate strain, with a greater number of injured fibres and more severe muscle pain and tenderness. There is also mild swelling, noticeable loss of strength and sometimes a bruise;
  • Grade III Strain: This strain tears the muscle all the way through, sometimes causing a “pop” sensation as the muscle rips into two separate pieces or shears away from its tendon. Grade III strains are serious injuries that cause complete loss of muscle function, as well as considerable pain, swelling, tenderness and discolouration. Because Grade III strains usually cause a sharp break in the normal outline of the muscle, there may be an obvious “dent” or “gap” under the skin where the ripped pieces of muscle have come apart.

Pretty gross, right? I’ll admit to having dealt with Grade I and II strains, but I’ve never had a Grade III. The article goes on to explain that if you are suffering from a Grade I or Grade II strain, you should follow the RICE acronym:

  • Rest the injured muscle (and take a temporary break from sports activities);
  • Ice the injured area to reduce swelling;
  • Compress the muscle with an elastic bandage;
  • Elevate the injured area.

Some further recommendations may include taking some over-the-counter pain medications such as Acetaminophen or Ibuprofen. Here’s the article if you want to read the whole thing: https://www.health.harvard.edu/a_to_z/muscle-strain-a-to-z

Although the RICE acronym is accurate, there are a few points to bear in mind. First, although it is important to rest the injured muscle, you have to be cautious not to rest it for TOO long. Otherwise, it’ll heal up stiff and with reduced flexibility and movement. Light, mild stretches should be done as soon as the pain subsides in order to ensure the continued full use of the muscle. Icing to reduce swelling is important, but the average medical practitioner recommends icing for no longer than fifteen minutes at a time to prevent tissue damage.

Another detail that many people tend to forget about is that swelling is not only a normal part of a pulled muscle, but a necessary one. So while it’s okay to help REDUCE swelling, trying to eliminate it isn’t recommended. The big takeaway, and the hardest one for us old school martial artists, is to rest up and give the muscle time to heal. you aren’t doing yourself any favours by pushing the injury and aggravating it.

There’s plenty you can do to prevent pulled muscles. Start by ensuring you take the time to stretch and warm up properly prior to any workout. Increase the intensity of your workouts gradually and try not to stay static in the same position for prolonged periods of time. This tends to reduce flexibility and proper blood circulation, all of which can contribute to possible muscle strains. Think about times where you’ve worked at a desk for eight hours at a time; you should be getting up and stretching at least once every hour.

If anything unusual is noticed about the pulled muscled, be sure to seek treatment from your medical practitioner. And by “unusual”, I mean things like severe bruising, numbness, a “pop” sound at the time of the incident, complete loss of use of the affected muscle group or even if your symptoms don’t clear up after a few weeks.

Although it depends on how severe your pulled muscle may be, you might be able to return to full use after a few weeks at minimum, provided you take care of it. Severe strains may require months to heal and possibly even surgery.

Being “tough” and pushing through it definitely isn’t worth the potential possibility of aggravating an injury to the point where you’d require surgery. There’s no shame in taking a break and letting an injury heal. Your body will thank you for it. And depending on what sport you’re training at, there’s nothing saying you can’t continue a light training regiment, taking close care of the pulled muscle. ☯