Of calisthenics and kettlebells

This post originally appeared on Medium.

 

If you're taking a leap into the unknown, call Chris does Content.Like many men in trades that involve more sitting than spearfishing, I’ve overcompensated for my clean-hands job with a lot of physical stuff. I’ve snowboarded and sparred, climbed tall walls and swum cold rivers, fallen through clouds and wondered under the waves. But there’s a problem.

I play action hero wannabe for the same reason as other men in that affluent gap between youth and old age: to feel alive. To get that zing that stems from being active, of hearing your breath in fast gasps with your heart hammering a hole. Enriched and overjoyed with the blood-rush thrill of the NOW.

And you know what? (Deep breath): none of it matters.

It’s true that on every jump or dive, there’s one moment of perfect freedom. An utter happiness where the world shrinks to a bubble around you and everything you ever wanted is right here, right now. And for a few rare souls, those moments are enough. (I can list thirty jumpers and surfers who live under canvas on minimum wage, just to keep dropzone or beach up close and personal.)

But for most, these adrenaline-hyped extremes are drug, not food. Just a release valve for the bottled-up frustrations of the everyday. And as with any Class-A fool’s gold, living solely for the next hit shovels a high opportunity cost onto the rest of your life.

That was the problem: covering up life’s negatives takes a lot of time, needs a lot of effort, and uses a lot of equipment. It hides everyday frustrations; it doesn’t solve them.

So here’s a thought: instead of living for the release valve, why not focus specifically on what’s pent-up, and try to use that instead? Not work to push it aside, but to turn your pent-up negatives into positives?

Let us re-pent.

Targetting low wage earners...As anyone who’s ever clenched a fist or grit their teeth knows, pent-up is a physical sensation. A negative one. It’s frustration with the everyday that puts the ache in your head and the battery acid in your gut.

But it’s still energy. And energy can be redirected.

That’s why my change strategy didn’t lead me towards another degree or tackling a Great Books list: mind and body are one. And with a sit-down job that involves thinking, fattening up my brainpan wasn’t the problem.

Or rather — bear with me here — it was the whole problem, but working on it would’ve been the wrong solution. Because a great many mental problems stem from incorrect maintenance of the physical self. And given that many trappings of modern life — sitting in chairs, sleeping on mattresses, taking hot showers — are habits the human animal never evolved for, it’s fair to conclude that for most of us, our bodies are in greater deficit than our minds. (Affluent living gives us comfort; it doesn’t give us health.)

So about a year back, I went all Walden on extracurricular activities. Strip it back, start from nothing, find an “extreme sport” so sturdy and spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life. Starting with the question: what can you do starting with nothing?

Three principles guided me.

onwall-blackandwhite

First: build-up not wear-out.

A lot of extreme activities carry a health warning. You need to be fit to do them; they don’t make you fit. In fact, they wear you down. A professional boxer trains a thousand minutes outside the ring for every minute within it and takes a month to recover from twelve rounds. The actual fisticuffs are the why of her training, not the what.

So whatever I chose, it had to be something whose practice led to healthy, physical improvement: a means as well as an end. Not an activity that simply enabled another activity — building up in order to wear it down again — but a what, in and of itself. Not a why.

Second: no equipment.

I haven’t done any studies, but I’d bet money there’s an inverse relationship between what people spend on physical activity and what they actually get out of it. (Beyond that brief hedonic buzz of the buying decision.)

My purchase history is littered with gear and gadgets bought in the heat of fads: I’ve forgotten what some of them even do. Animated discussions about the merits of Widget A versus Add-on B may be fun, but they mistake the activity itself for an obsession with the stuff around it. And don’t get me started on big-box machines at the gym. (tl;dr: they don’t work.)

So it all got dumped. The ideal home gym doesn’t deck the walls with a dozen Yorks; that’s the ideal hotel gym. (The one nobody uses.) The ideal gym is in your head. All you need to go there is two square metres of floorspace.

So the second question I asked: what life-enhancing activity can you do without gear? (As you’ll see later: I cheated. But not by much.)

Third: no preparation needed.

Self-help gurus are big on motivation. But motivation has high barriers to entry. You swear you’ll get out for a run, but it’s raining outside. You make an exercise plan, then get disheartened because it was too much, too soon. You bought the gym membership — more fool you — but it’s a half hour drive…

…and then you subscribe to someone else’s bullshit. CrossFit? Dance party. P90X? Wasteful overkill. Insanity? Self-flagellation. The only exercise that works is the one you actually do. (CrossFit, in particular, follows the Reverse Fight Club Rule: you must never stop talking about fucking CrossFit. And when you’re talking about it, you ain’t doing it.)

In fact, the only thing worse than fluoro-clad infomercials on the late night channels is the way even professionals measure the purported goals of fitness. BMI (Body Mass Index) is bunkum; it doesn’t measure muscle, aka “the bit that matters.” (Yes, a measure so broadly accepted it’s on the website of Britain’s monolithic NHS treats muscle and fat as the same thing.) So is five-a-day; that was an ad campaign, not a health study. And so is most of “nutrition science”. (It focusses on what’s in food, not the far bigger question of how your body takes it up.)

I had a gym membership for years; the kindest thing I can say is that the juice bar served good coffee. So I went the other way on that whole motivation thing: I wanted an activity that needed no motivation whatsoever. No times and dates, no dress code, and nowhere to go. Just get up and get in the zone straightaway, stay there or leave as you please.

Marketing from its heights... to its depthsIn the living room, naked

What this meant was an activity that a) delivered the endorphin whoosh, b) led to greater health, and c) could be done in the living room. Naked.

I found one. In fact, I found two. And it started with…

… a fucking push-up.

Yes. A pushup. The opening salvo of progressive calisthenics.

That was my new extreme sport. And if “calisthenics” just conjured up images of fluorescent legwarmers and star jumps — as it will for anyone who remembers the 80s — reread progressive. The methods aren’t 30 but 3,000 years old, and if they worked for the Spartans they’ll probably work for you.

That’s why less than a year ago my latest “extreme activity” found me leaning palms-out against a wall, exerting an absurdly easy pressure to push myself standing.

A lifetime of levelling up…

Yes. It starts like that. Against-the-wall pushups.

10 reps with perfect form? Easy. 2 sets of 10? Still easy. But try 3 x 50, with the same textbook precision. It gets strangely hard. You will sweat. You will tire. You will lose form. So you need focus, and fitness, and fortitude. All of which prog cali builds over time.

Programmes vary between four and eight basic moves per workout, each move concentrating on one area but engaging the whole meat puppet. If you get bored, each move has isometric and plyometric variants (aka “planking” and “jumping”) and add-ons for small muscle development and fine motor control. Each variant enables the next; each set builds a base for those beyond.

fail3 copyThat’s the progressive bit: you start easy and build on each move, in a upwards sequence of steadily-harder variants and reps that will take anywhere from three months to a lifetime to complete. (If you thought gathering XP, unlocking perks, and levelling up came in with games consoles, think again.)

That’s the beauty of starting from zero: the only enabling equipment is your body, and the only goal is moving it better. It’s less about exercise than about training a skill. Doing it right demands no less mental dexterity than formation skydiving, but without the need to stuff two hundred square feet of cloth into a rucksack first. (Actually — goes a skydiving joke — you don’t need to do that to skydive…just to skydive twice. But I digress.)

At the peak are superhuman moves like the back bridge and the headstand pushup, of which fewer than one in 10,000 people could complete a single rep. And somewhere, in every workout done correctly — even a tra-la-la toe-balance in the supermarket queue — is that zero-point of Zen peace, a thrilling calm in a vortex of exhilaration. Waiting to be found.

And isn’t that what extreme activities mean to us deskbound action heroes? Doing stuff anyone could do…but few actually do?

…with the level cap modded out

I‘m not doing human flags or pistol squats yet. But the benefits along the way are no less extreme. I like being able to do one-handed pushups. I like having a grip strength not far off my bodyweight. The achievements and goals at each level and progression standard, the perks you feel unlocking as lazy flesh firms up and underused muscle sings, make the connection between mind and body overt.

Hey, it might take me three years to reach Level 10. But three years of ever-increasing health? I’m up for that.

Screen Shot 2012-11-04 at 11.43.28That’s what sets up the Zen moment in prog cali. The sense you’re climbing a hill whose gradient always matches your skills and where the summit’s always in sight. The knowledge there’s no “you” beyond the patterns of your nerves—that we have no existence outside our flesh-cradled bones — isn’t some abstract philosophism; you feel it, the way a child at play feels it. It’s obvious. We’re all just sacks of chemicals, and how they slosh around covers the sum totality of human experience.

Being self-actualised — the prime takeaway of any extreme sport — is nothing more than knowing what those chemicals can do…and how to give them a nudge.

And when you do, the torments and setbacks of everyday life simply get turned to a lower volume. Every moment of every day carries the opportunity for moments of supreme peace. In the chaos of a commuting crowd, you find yourself grinning. You’re among them, but somehow above them.

(Even physically. Like Yoga, only more so, the stretches and holds of prog cali pack dense muscle around your spine in addition to prompting you to stand up straighter. The average human can expect anything up to five centimetres in height gain within a year or so.)

Look for the nothing

Hey, I’m not saying prog cali will ring your bell. It just works for me. All I’m saying is, if you’re addicted to the rush-and-a-push of weekend adventure to dissolve the strains and pains of 21st-century life, try starting again from zero.

You can even cheat on the no-equipment thing. My daily moments of inner peace aren’t quite naked any more; I’ve got into these things:

chris_kettlebell

The inevitable kettlebell bit

I added these cannonballs-with-handles mostly because I boulder (it’s like rock climbing, but without the altitude) and wanted to boost my grip. But in my mind, it’s on song with the Zen of Cali. You still need focus, you still need form, and everything builds from a small number of moves. For me, just two do the trick. (If it matters, they’re called the Swing and the Get-Up.)

One ‘bell sized to you replaces more than an entire weights bench; it replaces most of the big-box machines, too, with something that actually works. If you’re doing cali daily, a ‘bell adds a bit of spice.

I love my kettlebells as if they were my children. Small, rough-hewn, cast-iron children. But never forget: if putting the zing in everyday life is your goal, you really don’t need anything at all.

So the kettlebell pic’s here for honesty. To show that once you’ve found your zero, you don’t need stay there. Few of us really want to spend our lives loincloth-clad on a mountaintop, and few of us need to. Life’s full of great pleasures beyond those moments inside your head; if you live in your head all the time, you lose the context that gives those experiences meaning. And that leads me to the best part…

Still extreme, still Zen

…changing your outlook on life like this doesn’t stop you doing the other stuff. It just changes its purpose, positively. And, of course, it makes you better at them.

I still love the taste of a cloud. I still thrill at the sightseeing sixty feet underwater. And wherever there’s a rough wall, I look for the holds. But I don’t do them for the Zen moment anymore, because now I can get that anytime.

I’m going race car driving next weekend. But don’t worry — it’s just for fun.

Screen Shot 2013-01-20 at 16.23.50 copy

Four guys I’ve never met kicked off my journey to the zero, one of whom may not even be a guy: Paul WadePavel Tsatsouline, and Al and Danny Kavadlo. Buy their books! (I’m not affiliated to them in any way.)

How a normal guy reviews tyres…

Marketing carries endless choices. Where to go. How to get there. And who to share the wheel with. That's where I come in. 07876 635340.Today , I took a deep breath and stumped up for four new Michelin Cross-Climates.

While I clock up a few miles and have driven everywhere from the USA’s Route 66 to dirt tracks in the Indonesian jungle, I’m mostly a weekend driver. I’ve never been on a test track and can’t test under controlled conditions. (Not without attracting attention from SE8’s finest, anyway.) And like most ordinary motorists in the UK, I’ve got other things to do than worry about those black bits of rubber at the corners.

MICHELIN Cross-Climate 225/45 XLs on Audi A3So in contrast to the petrolheads of EVO and the flash of Michelin’s own marketing, my opinion’s that of a normal guy driving an almost-normal car. “Almost normal” because my Audi is a small car that feels like a big one. A 3.2L V6 up front and permanent  4wd with all the gubbins makes it heavier than a hatch but ultra-stable, while the horsepower keeps it fun. (I rarely use the flappy-paddle shifters, but love having them there.)

I’ve kept it years longer than I should, simply because it feels indestructible. But punctures are a hazard in my part of town, and I hate maintenance. So my rims wear something solid and reinforced.

The newly-launched Cross-Climates (purchased using the usual great service from Blackcircles) look exceptionally tough – even the garage guy said they looked “really grippy” – and however they perform, they look just great.

But do they work?

Yes. Brilliantly. And not in the way you’d think.

First off, these tyres are QUIET. None of the road roar you’d normally get from fattish 225/45s, certainly not what you’d expect from a tyre designed to play well on snow and ice. (Across much of Europe you need to change your tyres every October and March. These “Cross-Climates” are marketed as a year-round tyre, without the compromises you’d normally expect from using a Winter tyre in the hot and dry.)

Besides the hush, they feel more surefooted than any of the ContiSports I’ve had on over the years. They stick to the road like velcro. Not so much gliding over the tarmac as feeling their way along it, with barely a whisper. A bit of “fun” away from some traffic lights showed the grip starts from standstill; there was no sense the power wasn’t getting to the wheels fast enough. Did I say they’re quiet?

It’s a warm, dry day here in southeast London: not the conditions a Winter tyre is designed for. But driving around for an hour-plus, I didn’t notice any performance hit at all from the Winter capability… in fact, they felt better than any “normal” Summer tyre I’ve ever driven. Ultimately, don’t consider this model in terms of Winter or Summer; look at it as a great tyre, forget the time of year. I like this rubber.

 

(Disclaimer: I write the odd marketing brochure for Michelin (among other players in the automotive sector) but they’re not my contract client, did not ask for this review, and offered no payment or other benefit. I chose and paid for the tyres myself.)

Champagne at the Shard

My alma mater WBS opened its London outpost at the Shard today, and I got in a quick chat with London Mayor Boris Johnson.

Boris Johnson opening WBS at the Shard

Don’t be fooled by his loveable buffoon image; Boris demonstrated he’s the smartest and best-educated politician in Britain today, ad-libbing a speech that combined Warwick’s connection to Shakespeare, its former lord’s role as kingmaker (referencing Henry IV Parts I-III), and the value of business education, to the City of London and its continued success attracting global investment. Long live Warwick!

Hitched and sealed

Getting married at London's St Paul's Cathedral

Last month I got married at London’s St Paul’s Cathedral. (Yes, really.) Nothing to do with my humdrum family history – rather, it was my new wife’s illustrious parents that gave me the chance. As anyone who’s seen my profile pictures (“shot in the back of the head”, every time!) across the web knows, I prefer anonymity and the shadows to letting it all hang out; you do better work for longer that way. And religion is no part of my life. So why did I go for a ceremony guaranteed to have me appearing in 100 strangers’ selfies when we emerged onto the steps of one of the world’s most famous buildings?

For the story.

Life is about big stories. Sequences of events that make everything make sense. Marrying later in life than most (although I still feel too young to settle down) I wanted that big moment when it all came together, something we’ll remember forever. A full-length thriller not an espresso short. Something to anchor the memory to the reality with a big thunking CLANG, setting me up for a new life with my beautiful bride. (A girl whose stories started a lot earlier in life than mine, and involved events far more dangerous.)

And it was a big day. I can’t remember a moment when I wasn’t smiling. To over 100 guests who flew, drove, and sailed thousands of kilometres to be there for us… thank you.

And also as proof that life’s adventures don’t have to stop. I’m writing this a month after the big day, in Florida’s Fort Lauderdale airport, about to head home after an adventurous honeymoon involving driving, drinking, shooting, swimming, and getting my SCUBA certification in Key Largo. The stories don’t end. But this phase of my life started with a building.

Freelance consultant? Why you should take credit cards

Pay online by debit or credit card.Professional services like consulting and copywriting aren’t sectors you’d expect to accept credit cards; you can hardly imagine a sharp-suited ex-McKinsey guy or interim marketing director whipping out a card reader. Or can you?

I’ve recently started taking credit cards through my site Chris does Content, and it’s had a surprising effect. Not so much for longstanding clients on retainer (although they have the option) – but in the first month after setting up card payments I’ve had several clients buy single days of my creative consultancy by card.

Why? I’m guessing three things matter:

To escape the hassles of overseas PO’ing. With the vast majority of consulting-type tradespeople limiting their market to their own country or city, taking cards expands your market with little effort. (The clients who’ve taken it up so far are in France and Taiwan.) I’ve always had an international roster, but not everyone’s lucky enough to have a background and contacts in Europe and Asia; taking cards exposes you to that broader audience.

To enable faster response. If someone’s putting me on their credit card, I know they need stuff fast – and if schedule allows I can usually move them to the front of the queue. With basically zero argument to be had over payment cycles, a exchange of emails is all it takes to get things started; how’d you like 2,000 words of SEO’d up copy 24 hours after first contact? Can do.

To take advantage of extreme discounting. I’m currently offering a 25% discount for one-off projects paid for by card, and it seems to benefit both sides – the client gets a competitive price, I get paid in 3-5 days instead of the 60-90 day payment cycles many EU businesses work on.

If you’re on your journey towards being a six figure freelancer, it’s a useful addition to your payment options. Give it a go!

Dear bookshops: I’m sorry

I feel guilty whenever I visit a bookshop these days.

At first glance it’s not obvious why. I read three books a week, buy several more. And as an indie author I depend on people buying books for an increasing chunk of my income.

But in the last four years, precisely 0 of those purchases have been on paper.

On the lookout for solid marketing? Email Chris.I’m a Kindle fanatic and a minimalist; I’ve given away half a thousand print books over the last year or two and my shelfspace at home doesn’t even stretch to a metre. That combo is killer for any bookshop.

And I’m sorry.

From the bright detailing of the big chains to the musty corners of the independents that still dot Charing Cross Road, I enjoy them all. Browsing, visiting, wasting time. But unless there’s a coffee shop, I no longer have any reason to buy anything in them. I am driving them out of business.

But just as no teenager today can believe we used to carry around music machines that stored a single album, I simply can’t bring myself to buy the print edition of any book. Books take up too much space. How and why could I possibly justify purchasing a kilogram of dead tree, when a thin grey slate that weighs next to nothing can store two thousand of them?

Like I said, I’m sorry, bookshops.

But I’ll make you a promise or two. It’s not much, but it’ll help. Maybe.

  • I promise I won’t come in to paw the books before buying them on Kindle. That’s theft of resource, plain and simple. If I want to read the blurbs, I’ll do it at Amazon.
  • I promise I’ll buy a coffee. If there’s a tea stand out back, I’ll stick around and buy a beverage, maybe a croissant or something. Even if I’m not hungry. I owe you that much.
  • And I promise I’ll do anything short of outright charity to keep you around. When you run Writers’ Nights, I’ll support them. When I want to rent space, I’ll look at you first.

Let’s face it, your business model is bleeding out, and unless you’re a City Lights or a Shakespeare & Co you haven’t got long. But our streets are richer for having you in them. And I really, really want you to stay.

This head’s note to her pupils has gone viral. And it’s wrong.

That’s it, I’ve snapped. Could everyone raving about this head’s letter to her pupils PLEASE try and See The World As It Really Is?

Barrowford letter

Here’s why. The school has numerous advantages in educational terms. Its cachement is wealthier and more homogenous than average (easier to teach). And it has a large intake (resources per child go further). If any school should be at the top of its game, this one should.

Yet it’s rated merely “good” by Ofsted. (Which means “bad” in the nuanced argot of inspections.) Its exam results are BELOW AVERAGE.

Despite having every advantage in the book, this school is not succeeding.

Could that be the real reason its head sends letters like this… to deflect attention from what really matters?

Aside from being poorly written (packed with bad grammar and overlong paragraphs) the letter’s takeaway is that “education doesn’t matter much”. All you have to do is let it all hang out and be yourself. No suggestion you might be able to change yourself for the better. To take control of your own existence and be self-actualised. Where’s the ambition? The drive? The urge to succeed, the celebration of success? Nowhere.

“You’re perfect as you are” might be a nice thing to say to kids, but it’s poor prep for life.

See the World as it Really Is, people. This school sucks, and it’s because of the namby-pamby fuzzy-thinking liberal-leftie attitudes displayed by this so-called teacher.