Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Fitness Dive And The Final Wharf

It had been a long cold day. The queues to the Great Wall, the emasculative scale and grandeur of Tiananmen Square and the biting cold and oppressive grayness of a winter smog in Beijing had taken its toll on my ‘first day in the city’ enthusiasm. All I wanted to do was curl up with a book, a blanket and a large mug of hot chocolate when the bus took me past a large square building shining bright red behind a grid of lights. The rather imaginatively named ‘Red Theatre’ was hosting a show called the Legend of Kung fu. A montage of saffron clad sinewy bodies flying acrobatically and executing beautifully choreographed stunts flashed through a brightly lit stage in my head.

Warm room and hot chocolate versus braving the cold night for expensive seats to a kung fu show…. Hmmm, I must still be young for kung fu won hands down.

The show did not disappoint. A corny tale but beautifully told and the athleticism, power and grace of the performers made for a grand spectacle. It was there and then that I realized that if I was ever to draw up a list of fitness methods and rank them for what they do to enhance the human experience, Shaolin kung fu, has got to rank at the very top of that tall mountain.

And so let the drums roll, let the bugle call, and all rise to bow to the method that claims the prize – The Shaolin arts are the path of choice for both the beautiful and the wise.

Before you ask me why should you devote yourself to this system of Chinese self care, let me begin with telling that though the motherland for this system is China, the father of this martial system is India for it is a prince named Bodhidharma from somewhere in our neighbourhood who had taken the nuances and seeds of the system to the Shaolin temple (see issue dated: November 27, 2011 for the back story) and thus was born Shaolin temple kung fu.

But from a simple system of health and fitness, the monks nurtured the philosophy and principles of breathing, postures and forms into a martial art that integrates combat skills with fitness and internal health and well being with spiritual awareness. So straight away, you’ve got a fitness tool that covers more bases than anything else we have encountered till now.

Convinced? Come on, what more could you ask for? The Shaolin forms and calisthenics will tone and build muscle, give you an outstanding cardio workout and all that stance training like horse stance etc. will make you scream out and call people names but would also build fantastic muscle endurance. And it will do it all in a manner that would be good for your joints and build strength even in the tendons and ligaments which conventional strength training tends to neglect. No wonder you have had kung fu men like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li setting pulses racing and setting screens alight with their athleticism and world class fitness.

And as for power, Bruce Lee, who had trained in Wing Chun (a style created by a pair of Shaolin trained nuns) was famous for his explosive punches and kicks while other monks have been broken rocks, not boards or bricks but rocks, with their bare hands. As for aesthetics, check out the chiseled body of a man they call Sifu Yan Lei. Men’s fitness described his physique as one “that has been cut from solid jade”.

But Shaolin workouts aren’t about muscles alone. The first few words on Sifu Yan Lei’s website are “Qigong (the yoga like postures and forms that Bodhidharma brought to the Shaolin Temple) and Kung Fu is (sic!) not just for martial artists but for anyone who wants to live a long and healthy life”. Then it goes on to explain how qigong makes the organs healthy and strong, helps turn back the clock, builds immunity and generally gives the practitioner an energy boost that carries him or her through the most stressful of days.

And then of course, like yoga, qigong and kung fu train the mind and the spirit through meditation and breathing. Shaolin workouts push those who train in the discipline to connect with one’s inner self and the forces of the universe as much as with the opponents chin or solar plexus.

And lastly, Shaolin kung fu build courage and honour by teaching one how to defend oneself, but without losing control over one’s emotions or one’s punches.
Don’t take my word for it. Go out there and find yourself a Shaolin Sifu. It is an unbeatable workout that ticks all the boxes and far more than any other system that claims it can get you super fit and looking and feeling super good.

So there might be other systems that are better at building pure self defense skills, or better at healing the body or building huge muscles. But if mind-body fitness is what you seek, you could try kettlebells or clubbells and krav maga or yoga and yet there is nothing that compares with what those monks in the Shaoshi Mountain (that’s where the Shao in Shaolin comes from) have to offer.

We have our champion and you have your list. So don’t hang around the couch. The match is over and India has won. Let go of that remote and instead of gaping in awe as Virat Kohli crunches another one through the offside, get on your feet, pick something you’ll enjoy and stick with it for a while. For all you know, in months to come, your family and friends might be staring at you and your athleticism with a bit of the awe that they currently reserve for Mitchell Johnson and Kohli. So Happy Diwali and hope this series did a little to light your fuse… 


Thursday, October 24, 2013


There’s this strange thing about climaxes. The journey might be unknown but the destination is known. After all the climax is the reason why you got started in the first place. Through every curve on every winding road to wherever you want to go, you expect it. Through every shock and surprise and exclamation of delight or horror, the only guarantee is the climax, or at least you sure hope so. The nature of the journey, the lessons and experiences, tactile, intellectual and spiritual, prepare us for the finale but the enigmatic truth is that the better the journey the more difficult it is for the climax to not become anti-climactic.

And that is the dilemma staring back at me from the laptop screen this moment. Over the last four issues, I have shared with you, dear reader, all I have learnt about the world of fitness and we built up through a countdown of some of the best fitness systems in the world to what I believe are the top two systems on the planet for holistic health and incredible fitness.

The funny bit is that I had known all along that the two systems we will discuss today are the top two systems on my list. It was building the sequence that lead up to the top two that took a lot of time and thought.

We began with power lifting and body-building, two high risk-high returns workouts which primarily work the musculature and the skeletal structure. Then we explored lesser known, lost disciplines like club bells and isometrics – methods that were extremely popular about half a century ago but seem to have fallen out of favour due to the imbalances in these otherwise highly effective systems.

Then came the body-weight workouts - high rep and gymnastic low-rep systems that are surprisingly effective though a little too challenging for the average fitness enthusiast.

Nearing the top of the rack was a hard-core martial method followed by kettle bells. These two methods are incredibly balanced, relatively safe and bear fruit on all boughs on the fitness tree.

What more can be found on the altar of fitness that could offer even greater strength and health benefits than the above mentioned methods? And what could possibly be missing from these wonderful systems of health wholesomeness?

And the answer is internal health, and at the risk of sounding a touch un-cool, spiritual health. All these above mentioned systems, and some more so than others, fix most bricks on the fitness wall with aplomb.

Strength, endurance, cardiovascular capacity and even flexibility levels will be enhanced greatly through consistent devotion to the high rankers in the list. But what about the lungs and the kidneys, and the liver and the glands? Let’s not delve into greater anatomical detail, but really, what about all that clockwork that functions noiselessly usually, inside that rock hard and beautifully sculpted shell, to keep you running like a well engineered marvel of nature? Who is going to take care of that?

And to answer that question, put your hands together and welcome the runner up that ran the champion close – the humble homegrown and ancient system of, you guessed it - yoga!

First things first… What you know to be yoga and what is practiced in studios and gymnasiums around the world is actually asana, a mere limb of the complete system of physical and spiritual health known as yoga. Morality, meditation, restraints, and austerities are some of the other limbs of yoga but for the sake of our discussion let’s confine ourselves to the triumvirate that has the most tangible and scientifically verifiable impact on our health – asana or physical, calisthenics like postures; pranayama or breath work and lastly dhyana or meditation.

The primary difference, on a physiological plane, between yoga and other fitness tools is that instead of working on the body by building the muscles first, bones next and cardio-respiratory systems last, yoga work inside out. Each asana posture targets not just muscles and bone but different aspects of the internal systems like the endocrinal system or the nervous system along with other more obvious components of fitness.

But you knew that already, didn’t you? From Dr. Dean Ornish to Baba ram Dev, everybody who is anybody in the world of holistic health has been screaming from the rooftops about the benefits of yoga. This is why patients nursing chronic ailments oft en practice ‘yoga’. Even Western medical practitioners run parallel ‘yoga programmes’ in many hospitals to supplement allopathic treatments for their patients.

The real challenge for yoga is to prove it works the other way round… that it is a legitimate fitness tool and not merely a therapeutic one.

I was reminded of an article I had read in a 2002 issue of Yoga Journal which had pit three American yogis against Biodex machines and treadmills and the like. The yogis demonstrated flexibility levels comparable to gymnasts and acrobats and cardio respiratory fitness and lung capacity that on an average scored just below levels achieved by elite endurance athletes (but without pushing themselves too hard), had excellent body fat ratios and BMI (thanks to the overall healthy and conscientious dietary choices that are a part of the yogic lifestyle) and scored around the average mark in terms of strength. However, observers felt that the body takes a little time to adjust to the machines and scores might have gotten progressively better with more time spent on the machines. So there you have it… Scientific evidence that yoga works to keep you fit. As for muscle tone and strength, let a man no weaker than former world champion pro wrestler and current fitness guru Diamond Dallas Page tell you that not only does the practice of yoga heal and strengthen banged up joints but also tones and strengthens every muscle in the body in a way that conventional weight training couldn’t touch.

Yoga might not make you look like a body-builder but when done with passion and persistence and coupled with a lean nutritious diet plan, can give you the graceful lines of a diver and the aesthetic value of that can be understood if you take a look at the lean ripples on a young Greg Louganis or Bryan Kest.

Then of course there is pranayama, the practice of which gave Yogacharya BKS Iyengar, the grand sire of yoga a lung capacity that rivals the average lung capacity of a 25 year old Olympian at the age of 80. In the book Real men Do Yoga, a New York City fireman whose lungs had been damaged while he was busy saving lives during the World trade Centre attacks claims that even doctors couldn’t help him breathe and go for 20 minutes without coughing until he tried yogic breath work. The practice of pranayama improves lung capacity, and oxygenates the body like nothing else can. Pretty useful under stress or under water, I’d say…

Finally, the benefits of meditation have been trumpeted by far too many and far too often to be reiterated by me but just for the sake of completeness, meditation indeed relaxes the body and mind and rids both of stress and free radicals. And meditation also helps you focus and develop mental clarity and reign in and train that jumpy monkey in our heads.

Yoga attains a sky-high number two on the list because its benefits, while flooding the physical, soar far higher into realms and corners of our lives in a way that few other workouts can.

At this stage, we are left with little space to introduce the king of the heap who edged out the ancient and resilient yogic training system by a whisker, so I’ll bid you adieu for now with the promise that you will meet the champ next week. Meanwhile, get on the mat and give me a headstand. I’ll see you there in seven…


Thursday, October 17, 2013


In a forgettable film named Enough but in a memorable role as the furiously fisty, super toned mom-on-the-run, Slim, Jennifer Lopez, with that final flourish of a front kick that sent her abusive husband to his death, introduced Krav Maga to the league of the bruised and the battered. This Israeli martial art that emerged from the shadow of the Holocaust and emboldened a nation, becoming the chosen self-defense system for not just soldiers and law-enforcement agencies but for the whole nation – children, women and even the elderly. Today, it has spread all over the globe and is practiced with a view to improving not just one’s skills for staying safe on the streets but increasingly for its unique health and fitness benefits.

And this brings us to our rungs in the countdown for this week. First up, at number four, we have the striking arts. If you keep aspects of self defense aside (martial arts like boxing, kick boxing and muay thai are sports while Krav Maga is designed to keep one safe. Consequently, the most vulnerable parts of the body – eyes, throat and groin, are off limits in the former and the express targets in the latter), the striking arts, collectively, those martial systems that predominantly encourage striking with punches, kicks, elbows and knees, as opposed to grappling, like in wrestling or throwing, like in judo or groundwork, like in Brazilian jiujitsu (Krav maga has a bit of groundwork in its syllabus, but most of the time is spent on one’s feet in a Krav maga gym) – offer a tremendous all-round workout.

As a fitness workout, kickboxing, muay thai or thai boxing, krav maga and boxing have a unique edge over most other conventional workouts. A striking art challenges the body to exert balance, power and stamina, all in one intense workout. This is accomplished by going up against two unrelenting opponents – the timer and the punching bag (subject to the kind of strike being practiced, it could be a focus mitt, seed bag, strike pad or a heavy bag).

In most gymnasiums that use a martial art as a fitness tool, trainers use a combination of shuttle runs, calisthenics and bag-work (martialart speak for pounding away against a bag), and I kid you not, the intensity wastes you like few thing under the sun can.

I remember the first time I did a partner drill on a focus mitt (it’s those big padded gloves that trainers wear to help their wards develop striking proficiency against moving targets at different ranges), wherein one holds the bag for a minute while the other pounds away, and then we switch… and we were supposed to total ten minutes, which is just five alternate minutes each, but by the 50th second in round one, your insides are screaming ‘fire’. By the third minute, your veins feel like they are filled with liquid lead and your lungs with magma. Your kidneys beat like your heart and your heart feels like it will explode in your head… but don’t be alarmed. If it doesn’t kill you, and in all likelihood, as long as your doctor has told you that you are fit to exercise, it won’t, then it will definitely make you stronger. And strength in this context is not limited to the muscles and the bones alone. It also strengthens your heart, and perhaps far more than a round of jogging or aerobics ever could.

And cardiovascular fitness, along with muscular endurance and development, is the hallmark of our selections for this week. And so, entering the medal round, at number three, is the oddball dark horse called the kettlebell which does everything that a ‘martial arts for fitness’ workout can do and then some more.

Now, what is so special about this cannonball with a handle that it has become the weapon of choice for elite special-forces like the Russian Spetsnatz and the United States Secret Service, for martial arts legends like three-time Olympic gold medalist Aleksandr Karelin, and for the man the media anointed as the greatest mixed martial artist of all time – Fedor Emelianenko? But today, it isn’t just the Russians that swear by the bounce in the bell. Movie stars, football stars and athletes from track and field besides the usual suspects - martial artists and commandoes, are lifting kettlebells to achieve an athletic edge or an edgy athletic physique, whatever the purpose might be.

Super chiseled Mathew McConaughey lifts bells to ‘burn fat in a hurry and build muscles’ while Jessica Biel swings one too. And if she can’t convince you about why kettlebells rule, no one else ever will…. Why, even homegrown hunks like Hrithik Roshan have fallen for the bell.

And why are kettlebells so special? Well, for starters, the objective of kettlebell sport isn’t vanity but true-blue fitness. Swinging kettlebells won’t work the vanity muscles – bis, tris and pecs -arms and chest to the uninitiated, as much as conventional gym workouts would. But what it would do is work the muscles that we need the most to live long and live strong – the heart, the shoulder girdle, the back, all the way from the traps to the glutes, the core muscles and the legs. Steel grip forearms are a bonus. If you do it right, not only will you avoid injuries but would end up rehabilitating old ones. Secondly, unlike ‘the bigger (in inches or tonnage) is better’ mindset encouraged around most bench press booths, kettlebells are more about encouraging muscular endurance, correct breathing patterns, and learning how to maximize neural strength by working on the mind-muscle connection. All of this holds both body and mind in better stead as the years hurtle into the 40s.

Last but not the least, the incidental benefit of working on these functional fitness goals is a physique that admittedly looks more at home on a lithe vine-swinging Tarzan than on a ‘roid-raging mountain of muscle like that big green guy from Marvel. The latter makes for a fine spectacle, sure and marvelous strength goals are possible with such a physique. But for most folks, whether you want to show off a pair of jeans, a skirt, even the big green guy’s frayed cut-offs or a leopard printed loin-cloth, the former physique is the one they’d like to hold in their arms, or behold in the mirror. And as far as long term health benefits are concerned, on all fronts - muscular strength and endurance, cardiovascular fitness, flexibility and balance, nothing can beat and only calisthenics can match the completeness of the kettlebell.

So there you have it. As long as the body in balance is what concerns you, kettlebells are pretty much at the top of the pile. Sure calisthenics are great too but they aren’t weight-adjustable to accommodate varying levels of fitness like kettlebells can. So start swinging if that’s all you want.

If you think there’s more to being healthy than just a fit and strong body, then maybe next week’s methods are more up your street. But if Superman is all you want to be (Henry Cavil swings kettlebells too, by the way), all you need to do is wear the right pants, carry your kettlebell and find a phone booth where you can start doing your presses and snatches, and before you know it, your fitness levels will be soaring… up, up and away!

Wouldn’t hurt trying one on for size while you wait, would it?


Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Fitness Dive and the Ten Wharfs - III

What makes ordinary people like you and me into superhuman soldiers aka the US Navy SEALS who save the world in a week’s work? What built a delinquent young kid into ‘the world’s most dangerous man’ aka MMA legend Ken Shamrock? What sculpted actor-athlete Woody Strode into the ‘most beautiful male specimen of his time’ and prompted Adolf Hitler to exclaim that Woody had ‘…the greatest physique of any athlete ever seen..”

Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for the humblest fruit-seed on the fitness tree –b-o-d-y-w-e-i-g-h-t-c-a-l-i-s-t-h-e-n-i-c-s!

What? Why did you all stop clapping? Not cool enough? I know… I know… For those of you who’ve been brought up on images of beefy men benching a mountain and ladies in leotards beating the beats with hand-weights as the ideal path to fitness, calisthenics are merely an old fashioned way to warm-up…

In the third episode in this countdown, we will explore the oldest, and to its champions, arguably the best form of exercise known to man – bodyweight training, or as the old timers call it – ‘freehand exercises’.

What’s new about free hand exercises? Push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups and squats… that’s all there is to them, you say… ok for beginners or to supplement a weight-training program but it can’t sustain a comprehensive fitness life-style. How can push-ups compare with bench presses or clean and presses when it comes to building lean muscle or athletic strength?

Well, here’s how…

First up, the endurance hound’s holy grail – The Special Operations Warrior Workout! This freehand training method has evolved from the trenches. Soldiers in the field of battle, from when they were fighting with rocks and clubs to assault rifles and grenades, they’ve always known that the key to surviving most life and death situations, be it cutting through enemy positions, crossing a desert or a swamp, surviving a plane crash or a ship wreck or years as a prisoner of war, the most essential ingredient to survive it all is endurance – indomitable and unstoppable mental and physical endurance that refuses to accept defeat until the goal is reached or the body gives up the ghost.

To this end, elite super soldiers like the Navy Seals and martial artists like Matt Furey and those from Shamrock’s Lion’s Den gym crank out push-ups and pull-ups and crunches and squats till their whole body is reduced to a quivering gob of jelly. They might throw around some weights too but the cornerstone of their workout is the extremely high repetition workout plan where numbers routinely cross a few hundreds and often get into the thousand plus zone. This kind of training not only builds great muscle tone and endurance but it does something which few other relatively low rep or training to failure type methods can achieve. High rep whole body training, which is usually infinitely more intense than high rep, single joint machine or weight training, with the mind focused on a certain goal or number, trains not only the body but also the mind to keep fighting and not give up - even as the mouth goes dry and the muscles burn with lactic acid build up; when cranking even one more rep seems difficult and you have almost a hundred to go; when every cell in your body screams out for a reprieve but you just clench your jaw and keep going.

This kind of training will tomorrow help a soldier with a bullet lodged in his thigh still grit his teeth and carry his severely wounded buddy through a swamp and a forest over days without food to safety.

What good is it for you when all you want is a chiseled bod to show off in a Versace gown or in your Speedos by the pool? Well, for starters, if you have a mountain of lard to lose, then high rep goal oriented training is not only your best bet for building high octane fat burning muscle while giving yourself a great cardio workout, but it also gives you micro goals that will keep you motivated while the mirror takes its own sweet time in revealing the truth.

And for those of you who are already in good shape, there is nothing as liberating as getting a great workout anytime, anywhere, with nothing but your own body.

And if the extreme athlete in you feels that squats without weights is for sissies, pick up Ken Shamrock’s book –Inside the Lion’s Den. Flip to page 36. “Give me 500 squats”, Masami Saranaka, talent scout for a Japanese fighting circuit, had demanded. The scout knew that high rep squats test the two most important weapons in a fighter’s armoury – legs and heart. Shamrock of course had obliged, but if you want to know if you are fit to fight, go ahead, give the 500 a try. Elite international fighters usually manage 500 squats, a 100 push-ups and about a 100 crunches. And Navy Seal tests need athletes to swim and run for miles, do hundreds of push-ups and crunches and manage about 20 pull ups at least to be competitive. Now I’ve given you the goal. See how you match up… And if this isn’t incentive enough, even an iron-warrior like Arnold Schwarzenegger has asserted in ‘The Education of a Bodybuilder’, that not only do freehand exercises build a great foundation of muscle but sculpt the body in the tradition of the heroic Greek ideal. Now do you have a problem with looking like the Farnese Hercules? I don’t!

So if high repetition bodyweight exercises can give you superhuman endurance, excellent cardiovascular fitness and a lean muscular physique then why would you need anything else? What’s missing in the mix? 

And the answer is strength. A 100 pushups in five minutes still wouldn’t necessarily translate into the kind of strength you would need to manage a single one arm push up. Traditional body weight training makes it difficult for athletes to increase resistance once a certain level of strength has been attained. Once you can do 50 pushups or 15 pull ups, the only way to progress further is to keep increasing repetitions. While that is excellent for improving overall fitness, such training does little for building strength.

But in penitentiaries around the world, many criminals who are confined without access to modern gymnasiums still want to keep themselves fit and strong. For some, it is a way to ward off boredom while for others it is a way to acquire strength and respect - vital weapons if one wants to survive in the brutal dog eat dog world behind bars and steel doors. These prison athletes began experimenting with bodyweight training methods with greater leverage challenges. One arm push-ups and pull-ups, one legged squats and the like. On the outside, acrobats, gymnasts and circus performers had also been training with these techniques to build enormous strength without becoming too bulky. The focus was on improving the body’s power to weight ratio. There are many names for this game. Some authors call it ‘convict conditioning’ while others call it ‘freehand acrobatics’. In essence, it is extreme bodyweight gymnastics.

Today, extreme bodyweight athletes like Jim Bathurst, Al Kavadlo and Bulgarian superman Encho Keryazov are exponents of an extreme bodyweight training lifestyle that not only sculpts fit and beautiful bodies but is one of the few training methods that make for great viewing for bystanders too. Some of the things that these athletes can do are straight out of a ‘Ripley’s believe it or not’ episode. And their lean and muscular physiques are almost impossible to replicate with conventional weight training.

Then why are freehand exercises figuring in the middle of the list instead of at the very top? No gym required. Extremely healthy training methods which are both comprehensive and relatively safe. The physiques they build are unique and aesthetic. So what gives?

Well, granted that all you need for these workouts is your body but to achieve exceptional levels of aesthetics and strength, you need a very fit and strong body to even begin some of these exercises. Most people reading this would find it difficult to manage even one pull up or one-legged squat. And I w if any wonder how many would have the mental fortitude and physical endurance to crank out 50 consecutive pushups. The problem with freehand exercises, while excellent for beginners looking to build a foundation before moving on to weights and cables, is that they are too demanding. Freehand exercises, contrary to the belief that they are too easy, are in fact a lifestyle choice for a select few only who have the willingness to forge both body and mind in a foundry that is a little too hot for most and therein rests its Achilles’ heel.

Ten reps and three sets of a moderately loaded bench press bar and about 20 minutes of running on the treadmill are nowhere near as intense as three sets of ten one arm pushups and 500 squats. And when the apparent results, at least on the aesthetic plane are pretty much the same, then why should one strive that much harder.

As long as ‘fabulous fitness’ is all you seek, indeed why should you, for there are better bargains to come in the countdown. Just hang in there for a week more… and if from a pull up bar is too much to ask, go get yourself a hammock instead.