Rippetoe on Training vs. Exercise

Face it, Mark Rippetoe knows what he is talking about, and also has a way with words. Great article on T-Nation from back in July (July 7th, 2011). Thanks to T-Bone for the tip.

“Exercise and training are two different things. Exercise is physical activity for its own sake, a workout done for the effect it produces today, during the workout or right after you’re through.

“Training is physical activity done with a longer-term goal in mind, the constituent workouts of which are specifically designed to produce that goal. If a program of physical activity isn’t designed to get you stronger or faster or better conditioned by producing a specific stress to which a specific desirable adaptation can occur, you don’t get to call it training. It’s just exercise.”

Concerning the anatomy of the Radius and Ulna


Skeletal anatomy of the arm (pictured: right arm, with supinated hand).

Skeletal anatomy of the right hand.

Schematic (overly simplified) drawing of skeletal anatomy of the forearms.

So, because of breaking my left radius two weeks ago, I’ve been trying to educate myself about the treatment, healing, and rehabilitation of this particular injury. To my taste, no better source of information exists than the online Orthopedics textbook at Duke University, Wheeless’ Online. What I read there about the forearm and its osteoanatomy got me thinking about how the radius and the ulna function in various weightlifting, bodybuilding and powerlifting activities.

The radius is the bone that runs from the base of the palm beneath the thumb to the outside (lateral side) of the elbow. The ulna is the bone that runs from the base of the palm beneath the pinky to the inside of the elbow.

In neutral (hand shaking) position, the joints connecting the radius and ulna to the hand (on the distal ends) and the elbow (on the proximal ends) are turned 90 degrees (roughly) to one another causing the radius and ulna to form a triangle with the elbow, with the point at the hand (distal) end.

When the hands are supinated (palms towards the face) the radius and ulna are more or less parallel.

When the hands are pronated (palms away from the face) while the arm is bent, the radius and the ulna are crossed (nearer to the distal end).

When the hands are pronated and the arm is extended, the humerus rotates, and the radius and ulna make a triangle with the point at the elbow and the base at the hand.

The two lines never actually touch; the two pairs of joints at either end of the radius and ulna — either the medial and lateral epicondyles on the proximal head of the humerus or the scaphoid/radius luna/ulna joints of the carpal bones of the wrist — rotate independently and keep the bones apart.

All positions of the radius and ulna provide a truss-like structure to transfer power from the elbow to the wrist. The supinated grip, with its parallel bones forming a sort of rectangular plane, provides the most direct, lever-like use of the contracting force of the bicep. The neutral and pronated grips all form a type of tetrahedron, as the joints at either end of the two bones rotate around each other. These tetrahedral shapes are very strong trusses that can support enormous weights when locked out properly to the wrists and humerus.

I haven’t taken these thoughts much further, but they could influence various decisions about how to train athletes; for example, considering which exercises stimulate which joints, and the manner of stimulation, you could design substitutions for lifters suffering from various injuries or conditions (e.g. medial epicondylitis, aka ‘golfer’s elbow'; or lateral epicondylitis, aka ‘tennis elbow'; or a sprain or injury to either carpal joint).

Life Expectancy of Hunter Gatherers (Paleolithic Humans)

I was first tipped to this by Chris at Conditioning Research, but thanks still go to Henry, a reader of Mark’s Daily Apple who recently provided a link to UC Santa Barbara anthropology professor Michael Gurven and University of New Mexico professor Hillard Kaplan’s three year old paper on life-expectancy in paleolithic humans.

The paper, entitled “Longevity Among Hunter Gatherers: A Cross-Cultural Examination” [Population and Development Review 33:2 (2007) 321-365; online PDF available here], is a gold mine for anyone interested in the question of paleolithic lifespan (not only in terms of data and analysis, but also bibliography).

In my experience, the average person on the street assumes that so-called cavemen typically lived to “about 30 years of age.” This widespread assumption leads many people to reject the “paleo-diet” or “caveman diet” for the simple reason that we have no reason to believe that paleolithic human beings lived longer or had a better quality of life than modern humans. This article provides a ready rejoinder to that point of view.

During the past several decades, many anthropologists have advanced a new view of paleolithic life expectancy. Kaplan and Gurven’s comprehensive study argues that the limits of human lifespan and the curve of average rates of mortality during different life stages may just be an evolved characteristic of our species, that has been present since paleolithic times if not longer.

A quote from the opening section of the paper:

Our conclusion is that there is a characteristic life span for our species, in which mortality decreases sharply from infancy through childhood, followed by a period in which mortality rates remain essentially constant to about age 40 years, after which mortality rises steadily in Gompertz fashion. The modal age of adult death is about seven decades, before which time humans remain vigorous producers, and after which senescence rapidly occurs and people die. We hypothesize that human bodies are designed to function well for about seven decades in the environment in which our species evolved. Mortality rates differ among populations and among periods, especially in risks of violent death. However, those differences are small in a comparative cross-species perspective, and the similarity in mortality profiles of traditional peoples living in varying environments is impressive.

In other words, the authors argue that, already by the end of the paleolithic era, humans had evolved into beings who can live productive lives well into their sixties, declining after their seventies. Modern humans have of course inherited this genetic, evolutionarily determined lifespan.

A mortality curve is a diagram of the changing rates of death for any given age group. The curve of human mortality, cross-culturally, is shaped like a saddle. Mortality rates typically start relatively high (defenseless infants are vulnerable to a variety of mortal threats), but decline rapidly in childhood. They continue to decline until early adolescence, then remain constant until middle age, and then begin to rise again, as the elderly succumb inevitably to entropy. In any population, ages of people run the gamut from infants to octogenarians and beyond.

Intuitively, the paper’s findings make sense. Our species spent several million years living as technologically advanced apes, in the mode of nomadic or semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer bands. During this period people did not typically “die at age 30.” In spite of the very real mortal threats faced by early humans — threats of death by accident, violence, disease, or catastrophe — the species evolved in a way that a human person can remain productive and vital into his or her sixties, and may easily live beyond that point, even though the decline into death is inevitable and the risk of death accelerates after age 70.

This was as true of “cavemen” as it is of modern humans.

Myth and Mortality

One thing that has changed, however, for modern humans is the mythic world-view adopted around the topic of death. Many ancient cultures had a mythic view of that accepted and explained inevitable death in light of some notion of cosmic order and purpose. But modern humanity seems to have embraced a radically different myth, one that is wrong, at least in its history. Our modern myth is a narrative of progress in lifespan. “Cavemen,” we say, lived lives that were nasty, brutish, and short quoting the philosopher, whereas modern humans will live ever longer lives. Death itself may be conquered by using a science of diet or medicine. So we tell ourselves. And we obsess with extending our span of life.

The article linked above may provide a useful corrective to the modern myth of the ever expanding length of human life, by helping to dispel the misconception that ancient humans lived pathetically brief lives in comparison with us lucky moderns.

Ironically, through the epic story of human origins told in Genesis, the Judeo-Christian tradition embraced precisely the opposite narrative: a story of decline in lifespan. According to Biblical epic, in the pristine beginnings of humanity, the first human and his spouse had access to the Tree of Life — a food that granted immortality. In theory they had endless lifespans. After being cursed by God and prevented from gaining access to that tree, the lifespans of the first couple turned out to be much longer than the average lifespans of their descendants, until, after a number of generations had passed, and the time of the flood had arrived, the maximum lifespan of human beings was finally reduced to the comparatively short period of one hundred and twenty years (Gen. 6:3).

The presence of this number 120 in the Biblical epic suggests that ancient peoples (the story is 3000+ years old) had a relatively accurate sense of the longest possible human lifespan. The figure 120 is quite realistic, as can be seen by looking at the list of the ten oldest verified people ever (see Wikipedia). Ancient peoples cannot have arrived at this notion of a “maximum lifespan” except through long experience with the phenomenon of human aging and its relationship to mortality.

In other words, the elderly were not unknown in ancient times, nor they missing from paleolithic human communities. Human beings have always grown old and died of “old age.” Only a modern conceit, one that accepts without criticism the inflated claims of the superiority of our “scientific” civilization, would deny this.


Recommended Additional Reading: “Paleo Life Expectancy” on Primal Wisdom.

Nutritionists Question 2010 Govt. Dietary Guidelines

Hite, Feinman, et al., “In the face of contradictory evidence: Report of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Committee,” Nutrition 26:10 (2010) 915–924. [See ONLINE ABSTRACT and FULL TEXT].

The original Dietary Guidelines for Americans were produced in the 1970’s and were the first government sanctioned nutritional directives published in America. Under the influence of Ancel Keys’ studies of cholesterol and cardiovascular disease (CVD), these guidelines promoted the dubious concept that all dietary fats lead to excess accumulation of body fat and contribute to heart disease. In response to what was billed as a looming crisis of heart disease in America, the document promoted the replacement of dietary fats with dietary carbohydrates: the original low-fat, high-carb diet was born. Rib eyes were out; bagels were in.

When it became widely known that the government was sponsoring a full scale year 2010 update of these Dietary Guidelines For Americans, a storm of controversy ensued. To the members of the various camps of contrarian, alternative, whole-food based, low-carb, high-fat, and paleo diet promoters, it quickly became apparent that the government was going to engage in a blame the victim exercise of reiteration. The publication history of the scientists involved in the rewrite seemed to indicate that the report would likely represent the interests of pharmaceutical and big-agriculture companies. What it would likely not do was represent the spectrum of debate and uncertainty present among endocrinologists, cardiologists, and the modern science of metabolism and nutrition.

When the guidelines were actually published, in July 2010, it was clear to the contrarians that their worst fears had been realized. The guidelines had ignored 30 years of science, and reiterated warnings against saturated fats, although the science on these fats and their relationship to cardiovascular disease has literally transformed in the decades since the original guidelines were published. They reiterated the call to replace saturated fats in the diet with carbohydrates and polyunsaturated fats, in spite of the fact that Americans are literally besieged by masses of processed “food” products that are adulterated with obesogenic refined carbohydrates (especially sugar, HCFS, wheat flour and corn starch) and pro-inflammatory Omega-6 rich vegetable oils (soybean, corn, etc.) The guidelines did not adequately address the risks of the current dietary practices of Americans, in spite of rising rates of obesity, type II diabetes, and generalized metabolic syndrome. Fat gets demonized; cheap and ubiquitous sugar gets a “it’s fine in moderation” pass.

Americans, who are already obsessed with eating low-fat and low-calorie, and who are willing to purchase anything labeled as “natural” or “organic” as long as it it doesn’t contain “fat,” were essentially going to be told that for 30+ years they had simply failed to implement the earlier guidelines… and that was why they were getting fat and sick. Blame the victim.

Academic nutritionists, however, have not been silent about this travesty of public policy. In this recent issue of the journal Nutrition, prominent nutritionists from Chapel Hill, SUNY, and other schools pick apart the recent guidelines and devastate their claims to be based on an impartial review of the science of nutrition.

How long will Americans continue to be made the victims of bad, incomplete, politicized, economically driven government science?

Read the article, linked above, and let me know what you think.

Crazy for the Storm (Review)

Reviewed in this post: Norman Ollestad, Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival (New York: HarperCollins, 2009; Ecco 2010).

A father's day present from my parents became my second summer read

A wonderful and exciting read, Norman Ollestad’s personal memoir Crazy for the Storm should appeal to surfers, skiers, fathers, and sons, and anyone interested in stories of eleven year old boys who survive alpine plane crashes against all odds.

The book centers around Ollestad’s recollections of his relationship with his father, Norman Ollestad senior, a compelling and larger than life figure. The elder Ollestad was a fixture in the heyday of 1970’s surf culture at Topanga bay in California, before he was tragically killed in a plane crash in 1979, when the younger Ollestad was only 11.

The younger Ollestad, who is now 42 and has a son of his own, brings to his memoir of childhood the depth of insight that midlife grants, and also the sympathy for his father that his own parenting has given him. He has reconstructed events in a believable and detailed fashion, only occasionally offering us more than realistic detail of the 30 year old story of disaster and familial love.

Ollestad senior had been a child actor on television, then, as a dashing young man, joined J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. But he earned infamy after he quit his career as an agent and wrote a popular non-fiction book, a tell-all expose of the FBI in the 1960’s. He then went on to become a lawyer, surfer, and extreme skiing pioneer. As a father he was demanding and yet tender. He trained and toughened his son from an early age, testing him with crazy surfing and skiing adventures. The young Ollestad junior proved to be a talented ski-racer. The plane crash took place while he was on the way to an award ceremony in the mountains outside of LA.

Chapters alternate between Ollestad’s tense and fast-paced first-person sole-survivor account of the plane crash, and various thought provoking and illuminating stories of significant episodes in the life of the young Ollestad prior to the crash. The technique creates a gripping undertow that pulled this reader through the short chapters rapidly and compulsively. Growing up in the sometimes distant glow of his father’s intelligence, drive, and mania for the glide, the son developed his own powerful love for living and warm sensitivity, an energy that breathes through almost every page of the book.

Thoroughly recommended.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Review)

Reviewed in this post: Michael Pollan, The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (New York: Penguin, 2006; imprint 2007).

My first complete read of the summer; in fact, the first book I have started and finished reading, for pleasure, in many months.

FOOD is mysterious. It is both intensely personal and ultimately social, a matter of private taste and of public life. It is not enough to point out that food (along with air, water, clothing and shelter) is absolutely necessary for our animal life. Human beings, unlike other animals, are uniquely obsessed by their own symbolic relations with food. For us, food is as much about culture and identity as it is about nutrition and survival.

In Michael Pollan’s convincing account of our evolution and biology, human beings are omnivores. We are beings who have evolved with a capacity for eating just about anything. But more than this, we have also developed the capacity to control our own food supply. We human omnivores have arranged entire economies of food in order to allow for the satisfaction of almost any and every whim. Our dilemma is therefore the omnivore’s dilemma quintessentially: when you really can eat almost anything you choose, what should you choose to eat?

The Omnivore’s Dilemma combines economics, botany, gastronomy and anthropology, weaving a journalistic critical investigation of the problems inherent in the food chains that sustain us modern Americans, into a very personal exploration of the methods and meanings of our eating. It’s an elegant book. The title is drawn from the work of psychologist Paul Rozin, best known for his work on the (very physical) emotion “disgust.” In a 1976 paper Rozin sought to investigate how “food is recognized and how choices are made” among omnivores (his subjects were humans and rats). In Rozin’s words:

Omnivores … faced with an enormous number of potential foods, must choose wisely. They are always in danger of eating something harmful or eating too much of a good thing.

Rozin argued that successful omnivores develop and exploit two conflicting impulses, one pushing us to explore new possible foods, and the other to avoid novelty. He was interested in the physical and psychic structures employed by omnivores who are torn between their drive for “exploration” and their risk averse “neophobia.”

Rozin’s biological and evolutionary puzzle of omnivore behavior seems, for Pollan, to intimate a larger puzzle, one I would not hesitate to call existential and philosophical. Eating is not just a mechanism for the sustenance of life. It is rather a way of life. It raises the question of our relation to the environment and to other species, especially those we consume. Done well, eating could offer abundant life to persons or even entire peoples; or so we suspect and hope. Done less well, it could bring death, not only to individuals but to our own world. Enough individuals eating poorly could greatly harm the life of our own species, not to mention the lives of the species we eat or displace in our cultivation of land. And indeed, when it is examined on the broad and economic scale appropriate to it, human eating can be seen to be directly or indirectly related to some of the greatest health and environmental problems of modern civilization: water pollution, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, extinction, climate change, antibiotic resistant disease, and among those eaters who enjoy the modern western diet: rampant obesity and metabolic derangement.

To explore these themes, perhaps in search of a solution to our dilemma, Pollan offers, as the subtitle suggests, a “natural history of four meals.” These he acquires or prepares for himself from sources available to modern humans. The first is a meal dependent on the food chain we have created with modern conventional industrial-agriculture, a meal heavily dependent on corn and petroleum. The second is a meal of industrial-scale organic produce and meats. The third, a meal from a small-scale biologically and ecologically sophisticated conscious “beyond organic” local farm. The fourth, a meal scavenged, gathered, and hunted from the environs of Pollan’s home base in northern California.

But the subtitle is a subtle piece of misdirection. In truth, the book concerns human personality, not natural history. The meals themselves recede in the face of the “natural history” that stands behind them, and in truth “history,” natural or otherwise, plays at best a secondary role to the force of human personality. At the heart is of course the personality of Pollan himself; the book is a story of his journey of personal discovery. The course of research and reporting is driven by his appetite for understanding, and his desire for knowledge sets the table for these four meals. This highly personal structure gives the book literary depth and serves to highlight the central fact of the science of gastronomy: we cannot be in any sense objective about the subject of eating. It is necessarily personal.

But the Omnivore’s Dilemma is not a private, individualistic journey into food and eating. Pollan is intent from the beginning to expose the inherently cultural, social, and economic dimensions of eating; and his journey is by no means a solitary adventure. His natural histories rely heavily on the strength of remarkable human individuals who serve as Pollan’s informants, guides, and fellow eaters. The people in this book give personality and spiritual depth to the eating of the food they have a part in creating or acquiring.

Four individuals stand out from the rest.

The first is George Naylor, who makes his appearance beginning in the second chapter of the book. Naylor is a cynical and salty tongued industrial corn farmer and expert in the corn market, and his story and insight help Pollan flesh out the complex economics, ecology, and biochemistry of corn and corn-based processed foods. Pollan entertains a creative fiction that he can somehow follow Naylor’s corn from cornfield to feed-lot to the processed endproduct: a corn-fueled dinner of McDonald’s eaten in a moving car on the freeway, a meal symbolic of an entire system of globalized industrial agriculture.

The second individual is one of the pioneers of industrial-scale organic farming, Gene Kahn of Cascadian Farms, who makes his appearance in the ninth chapter. The story of Khan’s journey from hippie-entrepreneur farmer to capitalist giant helps Pollan tell the cold hard truth about the industrial scale and economic and environmental trade-offs involved in mass-produced and internationally distributed organic vegetables and meats. The story Pollan tells basically ruins the idea of “organic” for me… especially with regards to the term’s use in marketing meat and eggs… the only remaining reason to choose organic appears to be concern with the health of local soils and watersheds. But it appears that big agricultural industry has completely co-opted the term, philosophy and practice of organic agriculture.

The third figure, Joel Salatin of Polyface farms, becomes a driving force in the center of the book. Joel, the “Grass Farmer,” raises Rabbits, Chickens, Cows, and Pigs, producing as much protein as he can per acre of a small family farm. Salatin’s methods are described as “beyond organic.” His methods are relentlessly biological, local and sustainable. Salatin’s farm ultimately relies on a solar harvest: everything begins with the power of the sun being captured by plant photosynthesis in grass. Through the magic of the cycle of living beings eating and making waste, and trying to reproduce themselves on the earth, his farm operates at a high but sustainable level of productivity. Salatin, who opens his dinner table to Pollan, and lets him serve a brief stint as a farmhand, seems to make a profound impact on Pollan, before supplying him with some roaster Chickens and eggs which become the centerpiece of Pollan’s third meal, of local, “beyond organic” produce.

The final guide, Pollan’s real “Virgil” as he repeatedly names him, is a larger than life figure who is both overtly and implicitly held up to the classic renaissance man model established by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin: outdoorsman, gentleman life of the party, chef, and general advocate of audacious living and eating. Angelo Garro, who makes his appearance in chapter fifteen, seems to become Pollan’s food muse. Pollan is immediately taken by Garro’s personality and relation to food; when he is eating, he is “always intimately involved in the story of the meal” (283). Garro leads Pollan into killing his first game animal, a massive wild boar in northern California, and also introduces him to the world of extreme mushroom gathering (Garro also makes wine, cures meats, etc.; he is an amazing and compelling personality). There is an ancient, somewhat pagan vitality to this type of individual; literarily speaking, he resembles the Biblical Esau or the Mesopotamian Enkidu: a hairy man, a man of the wilds: “a stout burly Italian with a five-day beard, sleepy brown eyes, and a passion verging on obsession about the getting and preparing of food” (282-283). It is evident that the friendship of Garro leaves indelible marks on Pollan. But Pollan does not even seem to believe in his own transformation. The encounter is sometimes painful to read, as Pollan self-consciously censures and second-guesses his writing on hunting and gathering. His account writhes with an unbecoming self-loathing that does a disservice to the literature of hunting and to his own experience, although I think Pollan may be forgiven his eccentricities since he is a Yankee. In my view, Pollan’s chapters on hunting are some of the most tedious and self-indulgent pages in the book. The account fails, in that Pollan remains so defensive about his own process of acquiescence to the pleasure of hunting and killing game. Pollan wants us to know how embarrassed he is by his enthusiasm. In these chapters he writes as if the moral objections of vegans to hunting were something to take seriously, he writes as if he is unable to let go of his self-identification with a too-effete ideal of liberalism, one that equates justice with the total elimination of violence, including all violence against animals… even those we plan on eating. But I digress.

In the end, Pollan’s book becomes a chronicle of the effect these men had on his thinking about and understanding of his own omnivore’s dilemma, as an eater. The effect is profound. Pollan emerges from the experience of researching and writing the book a changed eater, surrounded by a circle of passionate and dedicated fellow omnivores.

Ultimately, what is Pollan’s proposal for a resolution of the omnivore’s dilemma, as we have constructed it in our modern food economy?

Pollan stops just short of advocating a kind of paleolithic, hunter-gatherer philosophy of gastronomy and health. He takes seriously the possibility that our food should be evolutionarily appropriate for us. (But this is, of course, uh, like, no duh.) But he doesn’t really embrace this philosophy. And he outright rejects some of its more extreme versions, such as the low-carb Atkins/Paleo culture that is recently resurgen. (Pollan sometimes mocks the low-carb school of thought as “carbophobic,” apparently without concern or full understanding of the theory… or even a recognition of the theory’s role in his beloved Brillat-Savarin’s genius.) Instead of embracing a radical or revolutionary approach to eating, Pollan emerges as a realist who has had a vision of an ideal world.

As a realist, he knows that multiple food economies will continue to operate — industrial processed agriculture will not go away any time soon. The righteous omnivore can occasionally, perhaps as needed, continue to participate in the larger economic system, even though participation in this system leaves us fraught with dangers of disease and looming environmental disaster.

But in an ideal world, food would be all local, sustainable, whole, and real; it would be gathered, or raised and taken by, a known hand or by the eater himself. It would be processed only minimally, and its provenance would always be known and explicit. Food is natural, and its producers would rely on nature to the greatest possible extent.

For Pollan, all is not lost; far from it. Pollan’s own experience suggests that the individual, the person, has the power, perhaps resident in the force of personality itself, to shape his or her own local culture or society of food and eating. It all begins with our choices about what to eat, or not, and how to eat it, and who to eat it with. As Brillat-Savarin said, “tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are.”

The Physiology of Fasting

A look at Peter R. Kerndt, MD, James L. Naughton, MD, Charles E. Driscoll, MD, and David A. Loxterkamp, MD “Fasting: The History, Pathophysiology and Complications,” Western Journal of Medicine 137:5 (1982) 379–399. PMCID: PMC1274154.

Revisiting “the Zone”

Explores my CrossFit inspired rediscovery of “the Zone” diet, 14 years after the original publication of Barry Sears’ 1995 book, Enter the Zone. In my own experience, the Zone-favorable diet is the best way to control your weight and promote your overall health and well-being.