Friday, October 31, 2014

Shot putting again!

I'm going to get more personal than usual in this post, and share some of my own history (as nobody but me reads this anyhow, there is no great risk involved in sharing) as the context it provides ties nicely with some of my recent concerns.

When I was a kid, I considered myself first and foremost a shot putter (well, maybe a reader, and then a shot putter, but reading voraciously was such an integral part of almost everybody around me that I considered it just part of what being human consisted in, and not something that set me apart). Because I developed Osgood-Schaltter syndrome (pain in the insertion of the patellar tendon) running was painful most of the times (and, to be honest, I was not that good at it), and being moderately big and burly putting the shot was a reasonably good fit for me, and I got acceptably proficient at it. Fron my early teens to my first year at Uni I trained it twice a week (basically lots of puts, plus some sprints here and there), lifted weights once or twice a week apart from that (just clean&jerk -w the awfulest technique you may have ever seen; bench press and squat -with no rack, so had to clean and press overhead the weight first; with an occasional snatch here and there), and competed almost every weekend when in season that lasted from spring to early summer, plus the odd contest in the winter months.

Because it is such a minority sport (kids that go to train athletics usually are lean, spry, and think of jumping & running, be it short distances insanely fast or long distances very fast, not the chubby kind that succesfully transfer most of their momentum to an iron ball or such similar implement) the competition was minimal, and I always did well, finishing most contests in podium positions and winning a couple medals in regional championships (both silver, one outdoor and one indoor). Not bad, definitely not outstanding and absolutely not national level.

Which was OK, as I realized soon I did not have the genetic endowement to shine (you need to be a real monster for that, once growth finishes well over 6 feet -I reached 6 by the nick of a dime- and above 240 pounds, when I never passed 190 then), and it never occured to me that consistent overeating and a much more systematic approach to weightlifting could have gotten me much closer to that "monsterness" that I thought possible (however, who that is not already wants to be fat & big as a teenager? I always prized myself of not caring about looks, or what others thought about my image -being an old fashioned rockabilly and all that, but may be excess bodyfat was just a beach too far). When I started my university career my puts had stalled for over a year (w a best put of 13m 41cm), I was becoming less and less competitive and I found rugby, so I stopped putting altogether when I was around 19 years old, and never ever putted again. In came an absorbing job, marriage, family, kids, as Zorba put it, "the full catastrophe"... some running (as Coach Rip puts it, LSD, "Long Slow Distance") once or twice a week not to completely crumble physically and the acceptance that my best days (fitness wise) were well behind me, such was the order of things and nothing could be done about it.

But when I was 36 I went to live to Mexico City, and the apartment we hired had a small gym with a few basic machines, a few treadmills... an a barbell w free weights. I started dabbling w the machines, as that is what I was familiar with (have had a few attempts at going to gyms in Madrid and Chicago, and "knew" that was the proper and safe and rational way to train), but the memories of grabbing a bar loaded with more than your own bodyweight and powerfully launching it overhead kept coming back every time I looked at the empty bar. Soon I was already using all the plates in the machines, and the heaviest dumbells in the rack (which probably weighted a paltry 20 kg or so), so I decided to give that poor, forgotten bar some use, and started searching in the Internet for some guidance on how to perform the basic exercises, and what kind of routines to use, and what I found blew my mind. There was a whole sport, called powerlifting, of whose existence I had previously not the slightest inkling, where people essentially my age lifted from the floor the equivalent in weight to a small car (and squatted and benched similarly ridiculous amounts). And there were lots of evidence that machines didn't do anything for you at all, but training with free weights had an almost miraculous effect (a little later, I found it nicely summarized -including the Zorba quote- in Dan Duane classic article for Men's Journal: Everything you know about fitness is a lie).

I've recounted elsewhere how in five years I went from a relative weakling dreaming of deadlifting what he once clean & jerked (100 kg) weighting at 94 kg with above 25% body fat to a robust guy who deadlifted more than twice his bodyweight, squatted 150 and bench pressed 110. 3 years later I was deadlifting 215, and clean & jerking 100 again (wheight was back to 92 kg, but this time  mostly functioning muscle that showed very apparently every time I went to the swimming pool or the beach). I got pretty absorbed in powerlifting and weightlifting, and thought that it was one of the most fulfilling things I had ever done (it still comes after being a good husband, good father and good son & brother), just for the fun of it. At that point I believed I had always enjoyed lifting, no need to do it for the sake of something else (like put the shot farther).

But then, a couple of months ago, I decided to try shot putting again... Almost as an accesory movement to help progression in the barbell lifts, as I wanted to get faster (mostly to be able to change direction after the 2nd pull in the Olympic lifts in less time, so I could end up moving under more weight), and that means using lighter weights, plyometric training (jumps, depth drops, depth jumps, etc.) and... throws. I asked my father to lend me his master's shot (only 6,25 kg vs. the 7,257 I would use in competition, and had used all my life, but you make do what you've got), went to the park in front of my home, drawed a circle 2,134 m in diameter in the floor (no toeboard, but again, you use what you have) and after minimal stretching I started putting again, 25 years after my last puts.

I'll be reporting in a following post how it went, and how it links with the evolution of my current training philosophy

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Olympic lifts and their power versions

This last Sunday, in my Intensity day I got a new full snatch PR lifting 60 kg. Still less than my power snatch PR, where a couple months ago I made 70 kg (equalling my all time best). Similarly, I got a new all time full C&J of 90 kg, which again compares unfavourably with my all time best power clean (and ultra shitty jerk that defies any labeling) of 100 kg.

That got me thinking to what extent was it wise to devote my energy to improve on the full lifts, when I probably could get more benefits from using the heavier (for me) power versions, with the added advantage of not abusing my troubled knees so much. Actually, you search the interwebz and for each article extolling the virtues of the Olympic lifts you can find a hundred saying how the power versions are just as good for most purposes (including even the improvement of the competition version of the lifts).

However, being the rationalist asshole I am, I wanted to find some reason (that could be successfully defended in front of my fellow humans, as a reason is only such to the extent that it can be shared, discussed and accepted by someone in similar circumstances to ours) for keeping on performing the lifts, apart from their overall awesomeness and badassery, and this article from Joel Smith on Juggernaut gave me jsut what I needed: Joel Smith on his assitance to Become Unstoppable 3

Essentially, what he harps about, what resonated most with him of the seminary he attended, was how to be fast you need to learn to relax very quickly some muscles, so you can contract others. That's exactly what the full lift gives you that the power version does not: in order to catch the bar low you have to accelerate it through a much shorter range of motion and then completely relax the muscles you have just contracted hard so you become flexible enough to adopt a very flexibility-demanding position.

Taking the snatch as an example, in the full snatch as soon as I feel the bar passing the navel I have to stop pulling to change direction and start going down in order to arrive there before it reaches its zenith, when I have to be already much lower than the bar so I can straighten my arms and start stabilizing it while I finish riding it down. In the power snatch, on the other hand, it is just pull, pull, pull, then pull some more, and finally try to straighten the arms when the bar is already overhead (something similar applies to the clean).

Now, it could be argued that this "pull faster 'cuz you have less time and less range to do it, then relax completely the muscles you were pulling with to be able to stretch them insanely" has very little transference to anything outside the ultra-limited realm of Olympic weightlifting (the actual sport, not the recreational application of it), and that developing the ability to just pull fast w more weight, damn the torpedoes about relaxing anything during the movement, has a more direct application to most sports... maybe, maybe not. I'm guessing that for the particular endeavor I'm currently involved with (throwing a 16 pounds iron ball as far as possible) it may come in handy, as I have to accelerate the implement in a relatively short time and space, and have to go through a number of positions that also require some stretching in order to better impart speed to it before I let it go.

I could be more scientific and run a couple of training cycles, the first one performing the full version of the lifts, the second one focusing on the power version w more weight, and seeing which ones correlates with longer throws, but for now on I'll just go with my gut and keep receiving as low as I can in the gym (which is not that low, given the limited flexibility of one of my knees, but as for now I'll just run with it)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Some problems with typical leftist critique of current socioeconomic system

Just finished reading "Unequal Freedoms" by John McMurtry, for which I had the highest expectations, as I (wrongly, it turns out) believed it would come from a similiar philosophical background (Francfortian interest in understanding how the dominant reason shapes our perceptions of reality, biasing them so we are more accomodating of the system's multiple drawbacks and have our critical capabilities more blunted -indeed, the leitmotiv of the whole Francfortian effort is probably to determine how it is possible to still think critically in a world of different totalitarianisms, be they forcibly imposed or voluntarily accepted by the masses, but I digress) and reach similar conclusions to the ones I'm approaching, some of which I've been sharing in recent posts.

To say I was disillusioned would be a gross understatement. The arguments were crude (the criticism of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, specially, seemed mostly based on a cartoonish misreading of fractions of their works, selected more by its polemical content than by its coherence or alignment with their whole worldview, and its influence on their contemporaries; the constant recourse to quotes of Milton Friedman was also characteristic: we get it, the guy was a monster, a champion for selfishness and a wicked anthropology -man as maximizer, although I would use more the work of Gary Becker to pounce on that..., there is no need to come back again and again to his pretty shallow and in the end uninteresting ideas to advance an argument, although it probably has its uses to rally the troops and arouse the animus of the like-minded), the philosophy almost nonexistent (the book is a litany of depressing facts, which would have benefited from some editing and proof reading, as it contains some blatant errors likestating that 60% of American seniors live below the thrshold of poverty -they are actually wealthier than the average of the whole population, or that the world population is approaching 56 billion -it actually reached 9 billion this year) and the alternatives pretty schematic and not much flesehd out (out of generic calls to "organize from the ground up" ¿around what principles, to fight for what causes, according to what organization: political parties, civic groups, friends & family?, "resist the money-code" ¿doing what, voting for different education, starting a commune, taking pro bono work? or "stand up against big corporations and their government lackeys" ¿not paying taxes, not buying their products, what when they are utility or communications monopolies?).

Its dubious use of the term metaphysics to denounce what he perceives as the deification of the market also made me cringe a number of times... I've grown used to progressives having no clue whatsoever of what believers think or understand of their faith (actually, even aknowledging there may be different takes on what there really is "out there" that seriously consider alternatives to the dominant materialism seems to be already too much of a stretch for most so-called philosophers nowadays), so it was no surprise to find here the same misconceptions (about the fundamentalism of the market, which any religious fundamentalist would find quite puzzling to see compared to his attitudes toward God, knowledge and fallibility), what disheartened me was to see it coming from somebody supposedly steeped in philosophical discourse (just shows the pityful state of fragmentation of academic philosophy that a professor on the subject can so utterly misconstrue what metaphysics is all about).

At least, reviewing my furious scribblings on the margins around that paragraphs that I disagreed more strongly with, I came out with a better understanding of my dislike of most of the "radical" criticism of the system coming from the left: it is the (seemingly) unavoidable tendency to personalize, or rather, homunculize, what is a complex set of institutions, practices and modes of thinking and reasoning (that, admittedly, are faulty and frankly improvable, although not from a naive and misinformed ideology with too many debts with supposed alternatives from the past that shared most of its problems). I very soon grew tired of reading how "the market" was cruel, evil, selfish, etc. Sorry, but an institution (and even less so one that encompasses almost all of Today's smaller institutions inside it) cannot be any of those things. A thinking person, what used to be called "an agent" can be any of them, as they presuppose freedom, intent, a perceptual apparatus that can give feedback on the results of her actions and the ability to set goals, understand symbolic signals (and usually also be able to create them) and use them to adjust those goals accordingly. If someone has a "bad character" (like that homunculized market definitely seems to have in the eyes of its leftist critics) that in turn leads him to perform bad actions, you can discuss how to improve it through education, providing the right stimulus (or, in market parlance that may give the author under analysis an apoplexy, the right incentives), reasoning, or even deterrence through the threat of punishment.

But you can not use any of those responses on an institution (what I'm saying about "the market", or "the market mindset" would apply equally well to "the big corporations" -I'm really fed up with people stating naively how evil, destructive, misbehaving, corrupting, perverted, etc. they are... sorry but no, maybe their top executives, or even all their employees, share in some of those character traits, but not for sure the juridical fiction that only metaphorically they "work for"-, the "money code", or, from the other side of the political spectrum, "terrorism", "feminism", "environmental absolutism"...). This is why their proposals to end what they perceive (rightly, I happen to think) as a sad and intolerable state of affairs are normally so lame, and end up being no more than empty wishes that humans would change and end up "seeing the light" and rejecting wrong ideas about selfishness, greed, excessive individualism and utility maximization. Sorry again, but even if proclaiming it may be (marginally) better than doing nothing, it is not going to take us very far, specially in light of the (typically unaknowledged) fact that even through the current recession/ depression the last two to three decades have been pretty good for the majority of the world population. It can be discussed how big is that majority, and to what extent the increase in all the measured variables of well being (from caloric intake to monetary income to average height to life expectatino) has been equitably distributed (it has obviously not), but the "brute truth" is taht the awful, irresponsible, hateful, distasteful, deceiving, lying, scurrilous, detestable, anti-humane, life-denying world system we live within has been actually pretty decent for at least the 2 billion people who have stopped being poor in the last decades, plus for the 3 billion people that were already out of poverty back then, the vast majority of whom stayed out...

I do know that "progress" has come at a price, in terms of environmental degradation, continuing pockets of violence (which, however, has declined substantially from historical standards) and cultural impoverishment, but negating its very reality is as blind and idiotic as focusing one sidedly on its advantages.

So from now on I forsake any leftist tendency I may still had. The system is indeed "improvable", but not through naive calls for its demise, not by naive calls to revolutionary tactics that stopped being viable a century ago, not by naive denunciations of its exagerated evils (I think the true ones aer justification enough for wanting to replace it with something better)... Not by naive calls that in the end change nothing, but through detailed changes in the legislation and in the organization of society that can be actually achieved, be it through the existing political process or by other alternatives that would in turn need to be clearly laid out. That is from now on my litmus test for any book I read on political philosophy (or sociology, or politics, or anything at all now I come to think about it). I'll consider them good insofar they map out a realistic path towards achievable improvement, and I'll discard as useless those that confort themselves and their readers with vague appellations to improve human nature or educate the public better (the public condones all the evil and undersirable features of the current system not because they are misinformed and require an enlightened pundit to clarify how things really are for them, but because they still derive more benefits than discomforts from the system, in their own terms, according to aht they really value... until that calculus is materially changed by actually modifying those benefits and discomforts no change will ever be forthcoming).