Tuesday, 9 April 2013

the Haiku workout

I’ve been feeling quite poetic lately for some reason. For me, that impetus is always a bit sporadic and tends to ebb away into more staid and pedantic periods, so I’m going to seize this chance to draw some parallels between poetry and exercise. For the moment, I want to focus on the Haiku form (and related Japanese-derived short poetry like Senryu and Tanka), and what that particular aesthetic or impulse might have to teach us in the realm of fitness and physical expression. I’ve always really loved Haiku. The form sometimes gets disparaged a bit for being simplistic and childish (two things which I am, proudly), but the really great Haiku poems are something magical. On the surface they seem so simple – something that anyone could do – but they also somehow hint at the totality of existence within those 3 lines of text. It’s that universality that William Blake was talking about when he wrote “to see a world in a grain of sand.” I hate to over-intellectualize any of this, because Haiku is the complete opposite of that. At its heart, it pure, unprocessed, direct experience of a fleeting moment, before our brains have a chance to apply any critical or reflective lens. The idea really resists explanation, and is probably best conveyed through examples (of some of my favourites):

On the fifteenth floor
the dog chews a bone-
Screech of taxicabs.
      -Alan Ginsberg

In my old home
which I forsook, the cherries
are in bloom.
     -Kobayashi Issa

Right at my feet
and when did you get here,
     -Kobayashi Issa

No one travels
Along this way but I,
This autumn evening.
     - Matsuo Basho

Because of the brevity, it’s important that every word has a purpose. There can be nothing extraneous. The purpose is not to reflect or deconstruct. Great haiku are those that just provide that spark, that instant of direct experience with the ineffable or sublime. They capture those moments when a person is just thunderstruck by the beauty of everything – sometimes a sad, melancholic sort, but beauty nonetheless. And hopefully, when done right, that spark triggers something in the reader almost as powerfully as in the perceiver himself, through some kind of shared cosmic consciousness or something.  So, you might ask, what bearing does this have on your next workout? Well, funny you should ask that grasshopper. I think that the ideal workout shares some commonalities with a great haiku poem. Such as:

1. It is brief. Now this isn’t to say that there’s no place for endurance work. There is (occasionally)…but I really feel that the majority of workouts should be short and intense. It’s pretty well documented that after about the 30 minute mark (of weightlifting for example) hormone levels take a rather nasty turn toward higher cortisol and lower testosterone production. Not good, not good. Few of my workouts last longer than 30 minutes. If it’s strictly weights, that means maybe 8x3 (Rookie Journal is a proponent of this and it’s really helped me increase poundages) of either squats or deadlifts, or perhaps 4-5 sets of reverse pyramid training, a la Leangains. Either way, the workout focuses on one big compound movement with minimal, if any, auxiliary work. You don’t need to do leg curls and lunges and extensions afterwards. Just squat (or deadlift, bench, etc.) and get out. With good chunks of rest between sets for recovery, that usually ends up at between 25-35 minutes per session. Structuring workouts around a single, comprehensive multi-joint movement like this allows, or rather forces me to focus on one thing and doing that one thing well. That’s the essence of haiku right there, I think. Removing distractions and focusing on only what the universe is doing right at the singular point where you are now. There’s nothing like a trying to force out a 20-rep final RPT set of back squats to remind a person of exactly where they are!

2. It’s intense
– staggeringly so. Just like a great haiku leaves the reader almost breathless by the beauty and poignancy of the image, so to should a great workout leave a person breathless (and floored, quite literally). I know I’ve done my best when I literally collapse onto the cold concrete of my garage floor after the final set. That’s the sort of intensity I aim for. That’s not to say I’m successful every time, because I’m certainly not. But I attempt to bring that intensity every time. In my mind, one shouldn’t approach a workout in any sort of half-assed way. That’s when you’re liable to get hurt or, at the very least have your progress stalled.

Building on the brevity point above, some Crossfit-style workouts or other metabolic conditioning-type work is so intense that it must, by necessity, be brief. I did ‘Helen’ for the first time last weekend, which is one of the sort of benchmarking Crossfit workouts. It took me about 13 minutes (which sucks by the way!), and at the end of it there was no way I was doing anything else. For the highly skilled people who do that workout sub-10 minutes, the intensity is even higher. The point is, like the haiku, the intensity is such that nothing further is required. In the poem, the image and sentiment is conveyed, powerfully and succinctly. It requires nothing further. The intensity of a great workout demands that there is nothing further.

3. It’s simple. I’ve made my best progress with routines of this sort. I made the mistake in my younger years of copying workouts out of muscle magazines and the like. I used to believe things such as needing to do multiple curl variations to target the different heads of my biceps. Those kinds of things might be necessary for elite level bodybuilders who are jammed full of chemical assistance and desperate to get one additional striation somewhere. For the rest of us, just do chin-ups! Your biceps will get enough work, along with your back, core, shoulders and even chest. Once that’s easy, strap on a weighted belt. No one who’s able to rep out chin-ups with 100lbs hanging off their waist is going to suffer from small biceps.

Movements like the squat, deadlift, muscle-up, rope climb, sprint, etc. are, like the haiku, almost perfect in their completeness. They’re a microcosm of human movement patterns in one package, just as the haiku is a microcosm of nature (or at least the human experience of it) in seventeen syllables. But simple doesn’t imply easy. Just as it’s extremely difficult to fully convey an experience through 3 lines of verse, these types of exercises are extremely difficult because they require the whole body working together in concert, rather than isolated muscles. And because they are so hard, many people avoid them and instead fall prey to the temptation (propagated by those wanting to sell magazines and training sessions) to do more, less-effective things. In my mind, for both exercise and poetry, improving should be about paring down and eliminating the non-essentials, rather than adding more complexity. There’s great beauty in economy, whether it be a perfect line of verse or a flawless heavy back squat.

4. It provides a new perspective.
A good haiku changes the reader in the sense that it recalls some past experience and forces a new way of looking at it, or provides a glimpse into something universal. A great workout provides a new perspective in the sense that it changes the person doing it - Not only physically (hopefully, in terms of anabolic adaptation) but also mentally/psychologically. Moving a weight that you were unable to only a week or a month prior is transformational. It changes a person’s self-perception of what they’re capable, and that has reverberations in all other facets of life. Of course progress isn’t linear and there is always going to be failure. But as Henry Rollins made clear, sometimes the kindest thing that the iron can do for you is to not budge. Failure is a great teacher in the sense that it forces a reexamination of technique, preparation, mindset, etc. to ensure that it doesn’t happen the next time.

Transformational moments like these are memorable. I still can recall the exact time and place when, for whatever reason, a particular haiku has resonated with me. And of course, for the author, that instant of composition is supremely memorable. So to, I still remember certain transformational fitness milestones – first muscle-up, first time benching bodyweight, first handstand pushup, etc. Even seemingly small improvements are often transformatively significant. Today, for instance, I strung together 10 consecutive muscle-ups. Not exactly world-class and only a one-rep improvement from my previous max, but to me it’s significant. To me it matters because expands my view of what I’m capable of.

5. It’s frugal.
There may be some great haiku poems about Maybachs and gold toilet seats, but I haven’t read any yet. Most of the ones that I love tend to eschew any kind of material concerns. They’re about simple scenes in nature, free to everyone. Or perhaps they incorporate some basic household scenes, objects or characters. Often, poverty is an undercurrent (not the abject kind but more of a simplicity associated by having only the essentially requisites of life and no more).

I got a great workout this past Saturday by doing sprints down at the local soccer field while pushing my kids in the wheelbarrow. There was another little girl there with her dad and once she got playing with my daughter she, of course, wanted to go for a wheelbarrow ride as well. With all three kids in there, it probably ended up being about 120lbs or so. And let me tell you that after about 8-10 sprints of roughly 100 yards, I was done like dinner! And all it required was a sunny day, an old rusty farming implement (which I originally found on the side of the road being thrown away), and three smiling kids yelling “One more time! Fastest ever!” No fancy equipment or expensive gear required. Actually, I was in jeans.

Perhaps that’s also why the most satisfying workouts are often those done outside, amongst the wilder elements of nature – a trail sprint up a mountainside or a swim through whitewater or the open ocean, for instance. Those ancient Greeks were onto something with their outdoor arenas and training grounds. Something about the minimalism of it all and the exposure to nature in all its wild vicissitudes.

above the moor
not attached to anything
a skylark singing

On one hand, these things make us feel small and humble, but also that we’re a not insignificant part of something larger.