A Supposedly Fun Workout You’ll Never Do Again

'I don't know why she's smiling, this is going to be awful.'

‘I don’t know why she’s smiling, this is going to be awful.’

Here’s a question: can you really do a workout that lasts less than four minutes? Yes. Here’s a  better question: once you’ve done it, will you ever want to do one again?

 

Here’s a little story.

 

I once went to watch world champion 400 metre hurdler Dai Greene practise. The word ‘elite’ gets thrown around a lot by people wanting to sound like they train serious athletes – or wanting to convince themselves that a performance that barely scrapes the top tenth percentile of their sport qualifies for the term – but Dai is elite. He’s an actual world champion. He went to the Olympics – didn’t win, but anyone can have a bad day.

 

Anyway, here’s what Dai’s workout was, that day.

 

Stretch, massage: about 45 minutes

 

Light jogs, easy-pace warmup: about 30 minutes

 

300m all-out sprint.

 

Rest 10 minutes.

 

Repeat two more times.

 

Easy, right? Well, no, but just for the sake of it, let’s say yes. That’s three sprints that weren’t even the full length of the track (and didn’t include hurdles), with a tonne of rest between them. Less than a kilometre of actual serious work, total. If you wrote that on the whiteboard at your gym/box/track, a few people would probably laugh at you.

 

This, no kidding, is one of the hardest workouts I’ve ever seen anyone do.

 

Dai destroyed himself. He did every one of those intervals just as fast as he possibly fucking could, and spent the next ten minutes trying to recover. He drew on all his years of training to push his body just about as hard as he could possibly push it, probably right to the edge of what’s actually genetically possible for him, motivated by who-knows-what combination of looking for Olympic glory, financial stability, or maybe just being the best he could possibly be.

 

So here’s another question – maybe the best question, when it comes to short workouts: can you do that?

 

Tabata workouts are popular these days. They’re short – 20 seconds of work and 10 seconds of rest, repeated 8 times, for a total of four minutes – and they work, sort of. Or at least, they worked for the high-level cyclists who did them under the supervision of Dr Izumi Tabata and saw improvements in their V02 max (and yes, probably got some sort of fat-burning effect out of them). But those cyclists also worked so hard that they had to, in some cases, be forced to get back on the bikes.

 

So.

 

Doing ‘Tabata-style’ pressups is not really ‘doing Tabata’. Neither is doing bodyweight squats, burpees or kettlebell swings – in every case, there’s a point where you simply can’t do enough work in the time to really ruin yourself on the level intended by the original experiment. What can you do Tabata-style? From personal experience, I’d say: cycle sprints, rower sprints, and front squats. Those three will ruin you, if you do them properly. But can you even do them properly?

 

I’m not sure I can, if it helps. I’ve been training seriously for about seven years now, and I push myself pretty hard pretty regularly. But even now, I don’t think I’ve always got it in me to push as hard as I can really push – as hard as I’d push if I was running away from a maniac with a chainsaw, except in a nice comfortable gym. I’ve trained myself to push harder than most people who go to a Tabata class, and I’m probably still not pushing hard enough. And when I do, it’s fucking awful.

 

So here’s my answer when people ask if a four-minute workout can really do everything it’s promising: yeah, but everything costs something. Without years of training, you aren’t near enough your genetic limit to really push it, and you haven’t developed the mental capacity to get near the redline. You might think you’re going as hard as you can: but you aren’t. If you want to burn a few calories, get a tiny bit stronger, work off a third of a caramel latte, fine: do your four-minute workout. If you want the gains you’ve been promised by the leaflets, you’re going to have to work so hard you never want to do it again.


HOMEWORK:
Surprise! I’m not going to make you do a rowing Tabata. Instead, do the following: go to the gym/track/whatever, get in a good warmup, and then do a 500m row, 400m run or 3km bike as fast as you possibly can. That’s today’s workout. Feel ready for more afterwards? You didn’t do it fast enough. Feel like it’s something you’d do again? You didn’t do it fast enough. Feel even vaguely human in the two hours afterwards? You didn’t do it fucking fast enough. LIVE HARD!

Things I have been wrong about: a (very) incomplete list

Calm down, Spacey.

One thing I’m not a fan of is people who won’t admit when they’ve got something wrong. Everyone gets things wrong: that’s inevitable. Not admitting it suggests that either:

a) You’re being deliberately sparse with the truth to protect your reputation, fanbase, or whatever.

b) You’re not that ambitious about expanding your knowledge base, so you don’t actually realise that you’re getting things wrong.

The second one is probably worse.

So, here’s a list of things I now think I was wrong about, alongside what I now think. Who knows? Maybe I’m wrong – or maybe I just haven’t got everything quite right. But here’s a promise – if I find out that’s the case, I’ll fucking tell you. 

Long slow distance efforts are worthless

For a while I jumped on board with the intensity-solves-everything crowd, assuming that anybody who ran at a conversational pace was wasting their time and that trying to get a new PB every time I laced up my running shoes was the best way to train. I ignored the fact that boxers have been doing LSD for years and have phenomenal cardio because of it, and somehow convinced myself that they’d be ‘fitter’ for purpose if they did nothing but short, intense intervals that mimicked the demands of a bout. I did a marathon, training with short sprint workouts but also 5ks and longer runs – up to 18 miles – all done fast. I did not, however, do as much mileage as a traditional marathoner. I wrecked my knee (judo accident) three weeks before the race, which ruined my time – but the real payback for my lack of distance was the fact that I could barely walk for a week afterwards.

What I think now

Based on following a lot of Gym Jones programming and reading a lot of Alex Viada, I’m fairly convinced that you need an aerobic foundation just as much as a strength one. To quote GJ: ‘Lack of cardio-respiratory fitness contributes to muscular fatigue – the better one’s aerobic fitness the faster and deep the recovery, within the effort of afterward.’ Even creatine replenishment is oxygen dependent, so there’s an argument that a solid base of aerobic capacity will make you better at, say, Olympic lifting. Besides: long runs or rows also get blood to your muscles, let you work technique and pacing, and can be a nice meditative way to spend an hour or so. There’s a reason Nick Diaz has some of the best cardio in MMA – it’s because he does triathlons on his days off. I run a lot these days.

Paleo is the best diet for everyone

Yes, this one. At the risk of sounding like a paleo hipster, I was into paleo about five years ago, when Crossfit people were jumping ship from the Zone diet in droves. I spent a few months not eating bread or white potatoes, semi-convinced by the logic that whatever cavemen did must be a sensible option. I also had some very, very shitty workouts.

What I think now

Firstly: the ‘logic’ that we’ve evolved to eat certain foods isn’t as watertight as it seems. As this video argues pretty convincingly, blueberries and broccoli have been selectively bred to the point that they’d be unrecognisable to a caveman, so that they’re much sweeter and bigger. Secondly, there’s no such thing as a ‘best’ diet for anyone – it’s fairly well understood, for instance, that different populations have different food intolerances. Remember Chris Rock’s ‘You think anyone in Rwanda’s got a fuckin’ lactose intolerance?’ Actually, lactose intolerance is fairly common in Rwanda, apart from among certain tribes – some evolutionary scientists argue that lactose intolerance is the norm, and that the ability to digest (and thrive on) milk evolved as a mutation - and obviously, it would be more beneficial in populations with a lot of dairy farming than elsewhere. Meanwhile, Nate Miyaki makes a pretty convincing argument that Asian populations are better-adapted to grains – specifically rice – than other ones, for similar reasons. Nate and Precision Nutrition are also very persuasive in their arguments that hard-training individuals can (and should) eat more carbs than a paleo diet really allows. Paleo advocates have jumped on board with this to some extent, arguing themselves into circles to suggest that white potatoes are somehow ‘allowed.’ But this is thinking about it the wrong way – you don’t need to retroactively justify something being ‘right’ based off starting principles that are wrong, you just need to figure out what works and do it. What works? If you do minimal or no exercise, eating paleo-style has the best chance of keeping you healthy and lean. If you work out, eat some goddamn potatoes.

Workouts should last under an hour

Ah, yes. For years, bro-scientists have been saying this on the basis that testosterone production peaks after 45 minutes and that cortisol – stress hormone – production kicks into gear not long afterwards. Keep it short and hard, they say – there’s no point in being in the gym for over an hour. Anyone who could – like every single Mr Olympia competitor from the 1980s – the bro-scientists argue, is on steroids and therefore not comparable to ‘normal’ people. This, of course, is a pleasing idea because it allows you be lazy.

What I think now

Well, it’s bullshit, obviously. For starters, what are you supposed to do if you need to train for something that lasts longer than an hour, like running from Marathon to Athens and back in full body-armour and then fighting in a massive pitched battle (which is actually what Pheidippides did, he didn’t just sprint 26 miles in a loincloth), or climbing a mountain, or escaping through 40 miles of hostile terrain? Secondly, people have been training for hours at a time since before steroids were even discovered – Eugen Sandow and the Saxon Trio did it, and so did Paul Anderson, whose idea of a fun afternoon was to load up a pair of bars with a staggering amount of weight, than whack a golf ball between them, taking a little stroll between sets. For hours. Finally, research now suggests that the exercise-induced testosterone spike has little to do with muscle and strength gains, and that it doesn’t happen after 45 minutes anyway. There’s more to the science than that, of course, but the fact remains – if you want to get in shape to defend the pass at Thermopylae, you can’t point to your phone 45 minutes in and go ‘Sorry Leonidas, anything after this is counter-productive.’

So there you go: I get a lot wrong. This is just scratching the surface. But I’m trying to learn, and when I’m wrong again I’ll let you know.

HOMEWORK: Pick a belief you hold quite deeply – it can be about training, or anything else – and do some googling to see if it stands up to scrutiny. You may want to put it up on reddit’s Change My View, just to see what happens. Oh, and watch that Chris Rock routine. Because he’s wrong about lactose intolerance, but he gets a lot of things right.

Ask Live Hard: getting ripped and cooking shirtless

[Ed’s note: Ask Live Hard is a semi-regular column where I address questions from readers. If you’d like some advice that’ll probably include ‘Deadlift more’ or ‘Stop being a baby’ you can contact me here or here]

I love cycling, as it gets my arms and legs toned while I enjoy myself and get fit and go places. But it does nothing for my core, which is all flabby and still has the remnants of manboobs from when I used to drink shitloads as a coping mechanism.

Is there an activity that will exercise and tone my core as a sort of fortunate side effect, in a similar way to how bracing while cycling up endless hills has finally given me buff arms? I know you’re going to say “swimming” but I hate it and don’t want to have to get naked.

Jonas, via email

I’ve got good news, Jonas: there are several things I’d recommend, and none of them involves being even semi-naked – unless you want to start cooking your bacon without a shirt on, which I find adds a dangerous frisson that’s often missing from breakfast time. They are, in no particular order:

  • Shopping
  • Cooking
  • Sleeping
  • Playing with dogs

To explain: if you already do a fair amount of exercise, more exercise is probably not what you need to shed bodyfat. What you actually need is to invest more time and energy in cooking and eating better, so that you aren’t at the mercy of ready-meals that are packed with sugar, refined carbs, trans fats and other nasty crap. Keep cycling: but instead of working out, resolve to spend 30 minutes a week loading up on meat, veg and fruit – and another hour or so cooking it all into protein and veg-heavy meals.

Done that? Okay, part two: stored bodyfat around the abdomen is often a symptom that you’re awash with the stress hormone cortisol, which means that you could use more, better sleep, and less stress in your life. There are lots of ways to do this, some of which I’ve detailed here. But it’s also worth noting that just calming down can sometimes get you in better shape. There’s a reason I’ve got a six-pack in many of my holiday photos, and it’s not that I stick to some sort of insane diet when there are caipirinhas to drink at 11am and all-you-can-eat steak restaurants to bankrupt – it’s that I calm down, my stress hormones level off, and my body stops storing fat as if it’s expecting an apocalyptic meltdown. No holidays planned? Hug your girlfriend. Pat a dog. Go for a walk. Remember that in ten years you’ll barely remember what’s stressing you out today, and that in a hundred years you’ll be dust. And watch the bodyfat drop off.

Which Rocky character should you train like?

Beard: not optional.

Beard: not optional.

Quick, tell me a film you’d rather watch right now than Rocky III. Actually, don’t, it’s a trick question: because that film does not exist. Leaving aside the fact that Mr T. should have won the Oscar for his layered portrayal of Clubber Lang – sorry, actual winner John Gielgud – Rocky III is the pinnacle of a series of films that have almost certainly sparked more impromptu workouts and ill-fated training binges than any other in existence. It’s scientific fact: if you can watch Rocky doing situps in a barn while Ivan Drago punches his high-tech Sonic Blast Man machine without immediately wanting to work out, you are suffering from low testosterone and should see a doctor. You too, ladies.

 

But anyway. Beyond being a powerful motivational tool in themselves, the Rocky films make another important point about training: there are lots of ways to do it. And, just as something or other created to fulfil Jungian archetypes, So which one should you train like? Easy: the one you aren’t training like already. Each man has certain characteristics that should be part of any training plan, but each also has their flaws.

 

Here’s how it breaks down.

 

Rocky

rocky

‘How many more reps?’ ‘Just keep going until we find shelter.’

Ah, Rocky. Hard worker, giver of amazing off-the-cuff speeches, lover of robot toys. The message of the Rocky films is a fine one – hard work beats talent – even if, strictly speaking, just getting really jacked is no substitute for actually learning to box. But anyway: Rocky is the epitome of the high-intensity grinder. He doesn’t periodise, he probably doesn’t work off percentages of his training max, he doesn’t think reps are a guarantee of a good workout, he doesn’t factor in rest days – he just goes out and trains his all-American balls off.

Try training like him if…You always go by what’s written in your workout plan, or you only train with intensity that’s ‘measurable.’ You might be overthinking your capacity for overtraining – maybe piling more good, honest, hard work in is actually what you need to bust through a plateau, whether that plateau is mental or physical. And some things are simply not measurable – like smashing a tyre with a sledgehammer or going all-out on the battling ropes or throwing a medicine ball as hard as you fucking can. These are still worthwhile training tools, though, and well worth trying your best on. Train yourself to put forth your maximum effort when there’s nobody around to count reps, and you’ll do better at anything.

 

Apollo Creed

'You should probably be beating me by more, I'm not training for a title fight.'

‘You should probably be beating me by more, I’m not training for a title fight.’

Poor old Apollo: gets a kicking in every single appearance, and his finest moment is running along the beach in a vest. Still, there’s an important lesson for everyone in Rocky III: sometimes, you need to enlist other people. Specifically, you should occasionally train with other people for two key reasons: they’ll make you do the stuff you hate doing, and they’ll make you do it harder, faster, and for longer, than you’d ever do it alone. Deep in your heart, you *know* there’s stuff you should be doing – sprints, perhaps, or skipping, or learning to throw a jab, or doing proper warmups or more mobility work or long cardio recovery efforts or eating better – but, for whatever reason, you won’t do it. Or maybe you should just work harder than you can manage on your own.

Train like him if…You always train alone. Sometimes you should find someone who’ll do your programming for you, because they will make you do the stuff you hate but need. Personally, my wife keeps me honest about including single-leg work and hamstring assistance exercise in my programme – if she didn’t, I’d never do them. Similarly, I’ll occasionally go to the gym with work colleagues so that I *have* to do whatever workout I’ve planned. You can’t give up 12 minutes into a 5k row race when there’s another guy going just as fast as you. And you damn sure can’t let them win.

 

Clubber Lang

Pullups fix everything.

Pullups fix everything.

The polar opposite of the Creed approach, and an appropriate role model for anyone who needs a roomful of high-fives and 15 Facebook Likes before they think they’ve had a decent workout. In the words of the man himself: ‘I live alone. I train alone. I’ll win the title alone.’ That’s some serious self-belief from a man whose idea of training for a world title fight is doing wide-grip pullups in his cellar.

Train like him if… You normally have to train with other people – a PT, a class, or friends. This is obvious, but you should also train like Clubber if your pre-workout ritual is too elaborate: this describes you if you’ve ever said you can’t lift without your favourite music or your favourite bar/shoes/skipping rope. If you ever have to fight or run for your life, it probably won’t happen with your carefully-selected Metallica playlist running, so maybe occasionally you should train with whatever shitty Euro-trance your gym plays as a distraction. You know what Clubber Lang would do if his pullup bar didn’t have the right knurling? He would do pullups until it broke, snarling expletives at it all the time.

 

Ivan Drago

Drago: world champion of Sonic Blast Man.

Drago: world champion of Sonic Blast Man.

Ah, the Russian. Drago is the perfect example of Eastern-bloc efficiency, not just because he has a special running track with speedbags mounted on it, but because everything he does is pre-planned by Bridgitte Nielson and her team of sinister scientists. Measurable, well-planned training programmes work, and will occasionally allow you to punch another man’s head almost clean off.

Train like him if….You eschew any kind of planned training in favour of winging it and attacking every workout like a madman. Intensity works, but it doesn’t work as well as planned progression, with planned recovery workouts and phases of overreaching. If you’ve never followed a proper training plan, this is you: get on Starting Strength, or 531 or Greyskull, or something similarly sensible – but stop just throwing shit at a wall. Maybe get someone else to write you a programme. Maybe write your own. But if you don’t know how you’re going to train for the next month, you should work it out. And then attack those workouts like the entire politburo is watching them.

 

Work out which one of these fits you and get it in place. To recap: Balboa if you haven’t gone balls-to-the-wall in a while, Creed if you always train alone, Lang if you never train alone, and Drago if you need some programming. Get it done.


*In case you’re wondering, the Rocky films, ordered best to worst, go 3,4,Balboa,1,2,5. Don’t bother arguing: this isn’t a democracy, and you’re wrong anyway.

Ask Live Hard: Why ‘nice’ is not enough

lunatic

This is genuine lunatic behaviour.

[Editor’s note: So I’ve started getting enough actual questions to think that answering them would be a good idea. Ask Live Hard is going to be a new semi-regular feature. Got a question? Ask me directly @joelsnape or via the contact form.]

Dear Live Hard,

I think I’m a nice guy, but it doesn’t seem to be doing me any good. Do I have to start behaving like an asshole to get ahead in life or with women? Is it true that nice guys finish last?

Marshall, email

Ah, this question. Let’s start with the ‘women’ part, because that really seems to be the thing everyone’s talking about when they bemoan their ‘nice guy’ status. But rest assured, the rest is related.

Here’s the thing: by saying that you’re ‘nice’, all you really mean is that you’ve reached the minimum acceptable standard of behaviour for living in 21st century society. That’s an achievement of sorts – a lot of people can’t even manage that – but to expect it to make you some sort of saint-figure batting away Tinder requests like Neo stopping bullets in the Matrix is, at the very least, insanely deluded. As far as I can tell (I’m not in the best position to comment), most women are constantly being asked out, hit on, catcalled, e-harassed and generally pestered on a scale it’s difficult for men to comprehend. Are they supposed to give every suitor whose LinkedIn profile reads ‘Polite; not an obvious murderer’ the time of day? They’d never have time for anything else.

On the flipside, perhaps you’ve seen men succeed with women by behaving like outrageous arseholes. This is certainly possible: the science of creepy-level NLP, cold-reading and crowd psychology has certainly come along way in recent years, and some of it definitely works – and, to look at it even more depressingly, some of the things that genuine, untrained, horrible arseholes do will, for complicated reasons, appeal to some women. The problem is that this is no way to actually live: relationships are supposed to be about taking on the world together, not winning some sort of zero-sum power struggle, and by thinking about them in an adversarial way you’re actually making your own life worse, not just the unlucky woman you manage to attract.

So here’s my actual advice. Bank the ‘niceness’ – hang onto that, but remember that it doesn’t make you any better than a waiter or mobile phone salesperson – and start to work on becoming more interesting. Do things with your life: things that inspire you, or challenge you, or scare you, or improve other people’s lives. Work on improving yourself, as a person: your work ethic, your passion, your satisfaction with who you are – not stupid little tricks that you can use in a bar. Once you’re happier with yourself, this stuff won’t be a problem. Nice guys finish wherever they finish: but interesting guys will always beat them.

You can’t get it done with a sprint: life lessons from a fast 5k

So recently, I’ve been re-addressing my 5k run time. My best ever is 21:19, and 22:00 is really the standard to stay below at all times, but I’d like to have a go at getting sub-20. Maybe I’ll make this, maybe I won’t. But training at it has reminded me of something that came up during the 2k row – something that’s even more pronounced over a slightly longer distance.

 

You can’t get it done with the sprint.

 

Unfortunately, I have a tendency to try.

 

It’s probably a pain thing. Sprinting as hard as possible for the last 250m of a row or the last 400m of a run is a fine way to ensure you end up ruined, and maybe convincing yourself that you went as hard as you could, but it won’t get the job done. What you really need to do is go at a slightly harder pace throughout, make things a bit more generally unpleasant and keep the average workrate higher. You can row four 1:45 500ms – you probably can’t row four 1:50s and a 1:30.

 

This, obviously, has parallels with the rest of your life.

 

Recently I’ve been doing a side-project at work. It’s essentially an insane amount of extra stuff to do, and even though I’m enjoying it, it requires more organisation and attention paid than anything I’ve done yet. Sometimes, my tendency with work is to leave certain things until the last minute, and try to get them done on the sprint. Because I’ve got a good ‘sprint’ work-gear, this works. But at some point, when you want to get more done, you need to go at a slightly harder pace throughout. You need to make things a bit more unpleasant, long-term. You need to keep the workrate higher.

 

So that’s what I’ve been doing: weeks and weeks of targetted, focused work, rather than one insane short effort. Will it work? I think it will.

 

Preparing for an exam? Writing a book? Training for something? Up the workrate. Don’t try to make it up on the sprint.


HOMEWORK:
Decide what the most important thing to you is, right now. Decide what steps would make it happen slightly faster. Take those steps. Don’t worry about the sprint.

Lifting weights will make you better at everything

'How hard could governing California be?'

‘How hard could governing California be?’

[Ed note: I wrote this for something else which never saw the light of day, so it’s a bit more aggressive than usual.]

There are many fine and productive things you could do during your lunch hour. You could learn some of the 1,945 ‘Jooyoo’ Kanji which make up almost all of written Japanese. You could make a start on memorising which of the UK’s approximately 15,000 species of mushroom are edible, and learning to recognise them.You could work on your drawing, or your writing. You could go for a walk in the park. You could read an improving book.

But how many things can you do that will legitimately improve your quality of life in almost every area? That will make you a tougher, more capable, self-reliant person, confident in your ability to make plans and stick to them, and to push through adversity when you can’t find creative ways around it? Not all that many: an hour isn’t long, and your office probably isn’t near the Shaolin monastery or the Eiger, and anyway those places are once-in-a-lifetime sorts of trips, to be embarked on with a bit of forethought and dedication. So what can you do, on any given lunchtime, that will make your life better?

There are probably a handful of legitimate answers to this question. Here’s one of them:

Lift weights
 
Lifting weights teaches you almost every skill you need to succeed in almost any area of life. At the most basic level, you have to overcome your fear and actually get in the gym in the first place, so there’s that. Then you have to actually lift something heavy, which can be daunting in its own right (side note: barbells are better than dumbbells, because you have to treat them with respect – if you‘re strong enough you‘ll be able to chuck most dumbbells around, whereas even an unloaded barbell needs to be handled appropriately so that you don’t throw it through a mirror). Then you start adding weight, and the magic starts to happen. After a few weeks you can do something you couldn’t before, and it is entirely down to your own efforts – showing up, doing the work, and then doing it again and again and again.

It gets better.

It doesn’t matter how strong or weak you are when you start lifting – at some point, linear periodization, or just chucking extra weight on the bar, isn’t going to cut it any more. At that point, you need to make a plan – perhaps you‘ll get one from the internet at first, but hopefully you‘ll eventually make one on your own, tweak things, experiment, see what works and what doesn’t. You‘ll start to pay more attention to little things like recovery and sleep, because it all means more weight on the bar. You‘ll have some sessions where you can’t believe how well things go, where the weight just flies up and you come back after lunch with a grin on your face that your colleagues don’t understand. You‘ll have other sessions where nothing works, and the bar won’t move, and you come back dejected. And, of course,you‘ll have days in between where you have to grind through the reps, tear the skin off your hands, and get through the afternoon on nothing more than strong black coffee and aggression.

One day, hopefully, you‘ll realise that you‘re pretty strong for your size – maybe stronger than most of your gym, and certainly stronger than the thousands of people you pass in the street every day who are going through their lives with the absolute minimum of physical effort.

But that isn’t the point.

The idea that it takes 10,000 hours to get good at anything is pretty discredited now. Anders Ericsson, the man whose research Malcolm Gladwell has made a small fortune from, has denied that it’s the conclusion of his work, and anyway Gladwell is largely talking about the very elite of the elite, the best chess and violin players in the wordl, since 10,000 hours is a ludicrous amount of time to spend doing anything. What isn’t discredited is that practise, much more than talent, is the best way to get good at doing anything – and this is never more true than in the sphere of weightlifting. In lots of fields of endeavour, the correlation between the effort you put in and the rewards you get out aren’t always obvious – you can succeed or fail via luck or contacts, environment or genetics. In weightlifting, improvements come through work. Anyone can tell you that hard work pays off and practise makes perfect – but lifting weights teaches by example, then reinforces the lesson until there’s no doubt in your mind. Once you‘ve pushed yourself to a double-bodyweight squat or a two-plate overhead press, everything else seems softer and more manageable. So what you‘re really doing in those countless lunchtimes where everyone else is eating a triangular horror-sandwich and looking at mix-videos of cats playing with babies is something more important than just getting big and strong. You‘re teaching yourself, through repetition and grind and the reward of endorphins and numbers going up, that targeted, well-planned hard work pays off. That’s a lesson that goes far beyond the weight room.

Lifting weights will make you better at everything.

HOMEWORK: LIFT WEIGHTS TODAY

Ask Live Hard: how do you get motivated?

[Editor’s note: So I’ve started getting enough actual questions to think that answering them would be a good idea. Ask Live Hard is going to be a new semi-regular feature. Got a question? Ask me directly @joelsnape or via the contact form.]
How do I get motivated to train at home? I’ve got some dumbbells, a barbell, an EZ bar and a pullup bar.
David, via Twitter
Okay, here’s a scenario: imagine you’ve been told that you’re going to have to self-perform a five-minute medical procedure twice a day, every day, for the rest of your life – because if you don’t, quite an important part of you is going to rot away. That would be awful, right? Well, if you haven’t heard this one before, I’ve got bad news for you: that’s exactly what brushing your teeth is about.
So the truth is: you really don’t need motivation. You need to think about training like brushing your teeth: a task that gets done, because you know it will drastically improve your quality of life, now and in the future. Similarly, there are basically two reasons most people want to start training:
a) Try to stay as healthy as you can for as long as you can, in order to play with hypothetical grandkids and be able to get off the toilet unassisted until you die. If this is what you want you don’t have to train all that hard.
b) Get jacked right now, so that you look good in well-fitted clothes and are more capable of physical feats of derring-do (beating up muggers, sprinting across town when you’re late, various sports, helping people move house).
You can, of course, train for both of these goals at once: that’s why I do. They aren’t mutually exclusive. But it’s useful to realise that there’s a distinction between them.
If you want the first one, I can’t write you a workout that’s much better than Dan John’s Costa Rica plan. Just do this two or three times a week, in your house, and start walking/taking the stairs more than you do now. That alone should strengthen your bones, keep your bodyfat down, work on the major muscular imbalances caused by modern living, and vastly reduce your chances of getting a lot of terrible ailments. It’s easy, and you don’t have to get hyped to do it. Just think of it as something that has to be done, like brushing your teeth and paying into a pension plan. It will work.
If you want the second one, you need to work a bit harder, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. Just remember: as long as you recover properly, your body will adapt to what you make it do. What should you make it do? Probably this: compound, full-body movements like squats, press-ups, planks, dips and pullups. If you’ve got weights, push-press, overhead press and some sort of bent row/one-armed row are a good idea. Now, the real secret:
Do all these in whatever way makes you most hyped. 
Personally, I spent a good six months getting totally ripped doing little other than the Bas Rutten MMA workout CD, where a giant Dutch kickboxer yells at you to do pressups. I used to do barbell complexes while I watched UFC fights, and I’ll attack a deck of cards workout for no good reason other than it existing. I hate tempo training, but that’s just me: lots of people I know love it, and are in better shape than me because of it. As long as you’re actually doing a sensible mixture of legitimate moves, a shit-ton of intensity will trump almost any training programme you can find on the internet. You don’t need this to become healthier or more efficient as a person, but if you want to look like Wolverine it helps to think like him. Easy.
So there you go: either do a nice, easy, life-extending workout…or put on Rocky IV and do a load of press-ups. Prepare for playing notional sports with grandchildren that don’t exist yet – or get a back like a magnificent viking for the next beach season. Or: do both. Preferably do both. Live Hard!

Long live the party: Andrew WK on piano, deliberate practice, and how to be happier

This guy is my hero.

So this is part two of Live Hard’s chat with Andrew WK: if you want a bit of context, you can read part one here. Otherwise, I’d advise cranking up Gundam Rock or one of Andrew’s piano battles and settling in for some interesting thoughts on learning new things, Andrew’s favourite party song, and how to be happier.

LH: On a different tack, something that not everyone knows is that you’re amazing at piano, which you’ve been playing for years. Can I ask what you think of the whole 10,000 hour theory?

AWK: Well, I’m all right at piano, and I appreciate the compliment, but I’ve met people who are so much better at piano than me – and at other instruments – that I might as well not even know how to play. It’s just one of those things I spent a certain amount of time with, and not only have certain people spent more time on it than me, they’ve spent more concentrated, focused time on it. My piano teacher, that I took lessons with most recently – this sounds like an exaggeration, that it shouldn’t be possible, but he really can pretty much take any sheet music, extremely challenging music like Rachmaninov or Liszt, sit down and play it like you and I would open a book and read the English language. I asked him about that and he said ‘Well, pretty much anyone can do this, it just takes an amount of time dedicated to it, much like learning to read a new language.’ I do think that there is something about that, that the human brain will figure out how to learn what it thinks you need it to do. Finding the 10,000 hours, maybe having the patience to dedicate to those hours – maybe that’s the talent, having the will to subject yourself to that level of intense practice.

 

I would probably agree with that. Conversely, what do you think of the idea of ‘flow’ – that actually being in a relaxed state where you’re having fun is the most optimal way to learn?

Probably both come into it. It’s probably both. I would imagine that the very rigorous 10,000 hours style learning facilitates one’s ability to get into that happy-go-lucky, open-minded ‘flow’ type of learning. It seems like they’d work hand in hand. Once you have the tools to learn, then you can enter that state – for example, if you’re an athlete, you can get in that zone where you’re playing basketball with this sort of intuition and second-natured ease that someone who can barely dribble would never be able to attain. Maybe in those moments where you’re using all these skills, all these tools and resources that you’ve developed from very rigorous practice, that’s when you can find breakthroughs into other levels of ability.

Speaking of breakthroughs, an album I only heard for the first time recently was the Japan Covers, which is a bit of a departure for you. How did that come about?

Well, I was very fortunate to have a lot of great experiences in Japan, even before my first album came out. I was very lucky to visit Japan, specifically Tokyo and Kyoto with my dad, who was invited to teach over there for a couple of months. And he was over there for those months, my brother, my mom and I joined him for two weeks, and those two weeks just had a huge impact on me. One: just getting to travel to another land entirely, going overseas was huge. It seemed like it was a precursor to prime me for more Japan adventures. And once the album came out people, and I got this exciting opportunity to do Japanese songs in English. Armand, the main guy I still work with at Universal Japan was incredibly devoted but also creative, and has presented me with all kinds of ideas that I would have never thought of or had the confidence to do. And he said ‘Why don’t you do an album of all these classic Japanese pop and rock songs?’ The most challenging part was translating them into English with a translator, and retaining not just the meaning, but the phrasing and the rhythm and the rhymes, and learning the songs. And every time I do a cover song it’s challenging, because there’s a feeling like – does this really need to be re-done? If it’s a great song, that version can be so definitive that it feels almost pointless and disrespectful to do it again. But if the song’s so great there’s a joy in just playing the music, in singing the song. So I tried to stay true to the spirit of it, the style and the tone and the arrangements. So yeah, that was very exciting to be able to have that experience. Have you heard the Gundam album?

Um, no.

Well, one of my favourite songs on Japan Covers was I-Senshi, which was from Gundam, it’s huge – it’s among the first robotic science fiction fantasy adventure stories ever, it’s very beloved. So I was actually approached to do a whole album of Gundam songs, it’s called Gundam rock. These songs were even more challenging, more ornate…and more rewarding, ultimately, to record. Try to listen to it if you can. 

I definitely will. Can I ask which song by someone else gets you in a party state of mind?

What’s one…Good Golly Miss Molly, I don’t think I’ve ever heard that song and been like ‘Eh, well, whatever.’ I really like national anthems in general – I like the British one, I like the American, the US one, I like happy birthday. Isn’t the British one the same as some other song that we have over here?

I…think so? [ed note: He’s right, My Country ‘Tis Of Thee has the same tune as God Save The Queen]. I’m a big fan of the Russian one.

Yeah. You really notice them at the Olympics – in Russia, I just noticed…they always work. Even if they start off quite boring they’re always really interesting – they build and they swell and it’s just great, emotionally stirring music. What else, uh…I kind of think of all of music these days as just one big song, you know, that’s just broken up into different moments and different parts, and the whole thing is just this incredible gift, this incredible phenomenon. No-one invented it, that’s my favourite thing about it – no-one invented it. It’s this thing that we all get to participate in and we all get to add to, and we all get to make, and we all get to play this song, that…who knows how it emerged, but it’s probably beyond all the amazing things that the world has given to us, music is this unbelievable miracle. It’s so baffling and strange, and yet so vast and we’re so immersed in it that…it’s a very difficult one to step back and look at.

Have you heard any Girl TalkI always think his stuff feels like one huge, extended celebration of music.

That’s actually a very good way to describe it. It’s just snippets of different songs, and you get to see how they relate, and realise that disparate genres of music perhaps aren’t as distant as you thought they were, you know, and that things connect and literally mash up better than you would ever expect. It’s like they’re all singing along with each other in one big long song.

Definitely. Okay, last thing: can I ask what one thing you think anyone reading this could do to make their life better, today?

Take notice of the things that are already in your life that you really feel thankful for. Take the things that make you feel good, that have proven themselves to make you feel good time and time again, and cherish them. Protect them, keep them very close, you can doubt them in a healthy way – but at the same time, protect them and be glad that they exist. Whether it’s a song, or a place, or a person or a food or anything that has that ability to make you feel better rather than worse. Those are magical, powerful tools, and as much as we strive constantly to fix ourselves or find something better, or do more or get more, there’s already so much there right in front of us that…we can be distracted by our pursuits and miss out on. Remember what’s already there and let it fuel you to add more to your life – but not to replace it or make you abandon it.

HOMEWORK: I’ve got nothing to add to that. Do what Andrew WK says. And party hard!

Let’s get a party going: Andrew WK talks meditation, inspiration, and perpetual-motion joy-zones

andrewwk

Andrew WK, let’s all just agree from the off, is awesome. Not awesome in the sense you might use to describe a sleep you’ve just had or a cupcake you ate or a gif of a baby falling off a tricycle, but in the actual dictionary-definition sense of ‘Being extremely impressive, or likely to inspire awe.’ To be clear: Andrew WK started learning classical piano at four years old, wrote one of the greatest party albums ever at 21, and has since become a motivational speaker and written two years’-worth of advice columns in Japan that were collated into a book called I Will Change Your Life. He owns a nightclub that is widely considered to be one of the best in New York city. He recorded one of the most moving love songs of the last decade. He (partly) inspired the title of this website. He is awesome in a way that shames 90% of uses of the word. 

Also: he wants to help everyone have a better life, and party harder. He genuinely believes that partying, and living with joy in your heart, are key to a good quality of life – which is something I totally agree with. So I asked to talk to him about that, and I’m glad I did, because talking to him was amazing. He was polite and thoughtful, and answered every one of my questions, however stupid, with an incredibly eloquent mini-dissertation on his philosophy. I’ll be running it in two parts: come back on Wednesday for the next one. For bonus sensory overload, I suggest reading this one while listening to The Wolf.
 
[Bonus lesson: I didn’t get this interview through any contacts I’ve made through working on a magazine or having been a writer for years. I got it because I wrote Andrew WK’s public email address an email saying, uh, much of the above, and that I hoped he’d talk to me about some of his philosophy. Sometimes, things are easier than you expect they’ll be.]
 

Andrew, you wrote Party Hard and It’s Time To Party over a decade ago, and just recently you wrote an incredibly well thought-out defense of partying in the Village Voice. Have you really had this party-philosophy for all that time, or is it something you’re constantly working on?

 

I’ve definitely developed methods of trying to explain it, thanks to people asking me. To me it seemed very inherent – in fact, that was one of the things that drew me to this idea of very pure fun was that everybody would understand it, that there was no explanation necessary. But it seems that despite – or perhaps because of the simplicity involved, some people were more skeptical or doubtful or even more confused. And that requires me to find ways to explain something, no matter how simple it may seem to me or other people. I’ve figured out more about it myself thanks to people inquiring. For me…I think young people always struggle with very bad feelings for a while, I know I did, and I was looking for very direct and potent methods of cheering myself up. And that whole mindset, this idea of partying and celebration of good feelings, devoting yourself to that as a lifestyle, a cause or a mission, just made sense to me.

 

Part of what really worked about it was just how one-dimensional it was – just the idea that you should spend time with things that make you feel better, on projects, and fill your mind with cheerful energy. And despite that, some people are…I don’t know if they’re puzzled by it, they just haven’t realised that you can pursue those things in good faith. That somehow, you’re sacrificing some sense of either intelligence – people think it’s stupid – or that it’s not a noble pursuit, that you should be devoting your time to things that they deem more worthy of energy. But, in my experience at least, I was very unsuccessful at doing almost anything else if I was in a bad mood. So the most important thing to me was getting in a state of mind where I could function, and then I could do whatever it was. But I wasn’t much use to anybody, especially myself, when I was feeling depressed, you know.

 

Just to be clear: by partying, do you mean getting drunk and dancing, or just doing things that make you happy more generally?

 

It includes those things.

 

It doesn’t really go beyond or fall short of any definition. It’s very open. So really, it can be drinking and dancing for someone, it can be entirely different for someone else. If you’re saying what’s the main mindset, I think then the mindset is just…having a mindset at all. Partying to me is almost like a game of thinking – the framework of this party state of mind is just stepping back one degree in perspective so that you can consider your thoughts, consider your state of mind and the world and your place in it from a bit of an abstract distance. And with that distance and that perspective, have a greater appreciation for it. Sort of like an awareness in general that…you’re most likely not going to live forever, I would say definitely not, but who knows how technology will advance in these coming years and what options it will give us – but a respect and admiration for the fragility of, of everything. For the temporary conditions that we’re in, for better or worse. And think about the urgency that creates. And I think that lays a foundation on which you can build. It’s very easy to get caught up in thoughts and feelings and situations that distract us from very simple truths. In fact, it could be that almost all of our pursuits in day to day life take us further from the core experience which, by its very nature is a very happy, positive experience. Trying to regain some awareness of just the basic miracle of being alive is a great place to start.

 

That is an amazing answer. So, with that in mind, are there things you still struggle with? Things you have to work on?

 

I have to work on everything, like everybody else. Or maybe not – I always feel like everyone has the same feelings as me, but then I meet some people that don’t ever seem to feel too angry, or don’t feel too sad. They’re like real angels, these people. I used to really envy people like that – I still admire them tremendously, and beginning to spend time with people like that has been really very joyful. But…I’m not sure it’s possible for me to learn to do that, I think some people are just born like that. The first feeling I always had waking up in the morning wasn’t a good feeling, it was a feeling of sort of…dread, and being overwhelmed by life, and being scared of everything, just angry and depressed. All those negative feelings, I’ve felt and continued to feel, I just try to deal with them in different ways and use them in different ways. I think in fact, a lot of the feelings that most people define as negative are some of the most motivating feelings, but sometimes not for the best. You can be pushed and driven by anger, competition, petty jealousy, by low-level feelings – and if you use them like a fuel, to burn and rid yourself of them that way, that’s fantastic. But if they consume you and become your mainstay, then they burn you up. It’s a constant battle, but there’s a lot of energy to be extracted from all those feelings. So…I’ve made peace with them. Sometimes I have to summon up those feelings, because that will make me dance harder on stage, bang my head harder…and in that sense, I don’t think they’re good or bad, they’re just feelings. We can’t really define them as good or bad – they’re just these surges of energy, and I really mean physical energy, and we can harness them however we want. Sometimes feeling too good isn’t really that great of a thing – that’s the game that you play with things like drugs or anything that gives you an immediate good feeling – it’s like, why would you bother doing anything if you can just do this and feel on top of the world effortlessly? Every feeling has its place, and it’s about trying to make the best of them.

 

You mention people that are effortlessly cheerful – do you think there are things that everyone else can learn from their approach to life, or is it just a natural, brain-chemistry thing?

 

Well, I definitely think people are made in different ways – but we also have great power to change who we are. Just thinking about thinking is a very powerful thing, having self-awareness – as far as we can tell, we’re maybe the only creatures that have it, at least to this extent. And one of the great things about it is that we can consider ourselves – not just our surroundings and what we’re faced with, but we can consider the very phenomenon of being able to consider things at all. That loop is quite thrilling, and can be really overwhelming too, but ultimately it gives us this chance to consider ourselves abstractly, and when you do that you can make adjustments. It’s not necessarily easy – it takes practice to rewire how you think, but it’s definitely possible.

 

So is just sitting and thinking something you try to do every day? What do you intentionally make time for?

 

I don’t have so much of a routine beyond eating and using the bathroom. Not having a routine has actually become the routine to a degree, so I’m very used to it, I’m hooked on that variety, the dynamics of an ever-changing schedule. But…I think thanks to all the travelling, there’s a lot of time in travelling that’s exciting and very stimulating, but there’s also a lot of quiet time, open space where you can just sit and think – whether you like it or not. I enjoy those times and appreciate them now more than I ever did before. Sometimes I would think ‘Oh this is really boring, taking this train ride, sitting at this airport, but those times I think are special to me now just to sit and be, and have an excuse, a free pass, that there’s nowhere else that I could be. People can say ‘Oh, you could be getting work done,’ but I’ve actually learned that I’m not very good at getting other work done while I’m touring or travelling. I have friends that can record an album while they’re touring, they multitask – I envy that, I really thought that I could or should be able to do it, but then I realized that I just can’t. So maybe I’ll write a song in my head, but usually I just appreciate that time to just exist.

 

It’s interesting that you mention thinking on planes and trains. There’s a guy [it’s Alain De Botton] who suggests that the crawl of scenery past windows actually helps trigger new trains of thought.

 

Oh, absolutely – but at the same time, sitting in a room just to think is very intense and definitely worth doing. It’s almost that it’s so intense that it’s hard to do, it actually takes practice, and I haven’t really done a lot of that – I guess that’s what people call meditating. But if you just sit and think as its own activity, instead of ‘Oh, I’m going to run around the block or go shopping or learn this piano part,’ you go, ‘I’m just going to sit and think about this thing,’ that’s great. And I think there’s this real misconception that the idea of meditation is to sit and not think about anything. That’s just one type of meditation, that’s a type where you intentionally work to achieve a state of non-thought. Which, it’s possible, but that’s like the most advanced…maybe 0.1% of people will get to that level. But it’s just as worthwhile to take something and think about it as hard as you can, whatever it might be. Think about cake, think about an elephant, think about yourself, think about some person – and really think about it, every aspect of it, as hard as you can. Meditating on something is very worthwhile.

 

Okay. Speaking of thinking of people, can I ask who inspires you personally?

 

…I don’t know. Everybody, I guess. I can’t really think of anyone in particular that’s more inspiring or less inspiring…I’m trying to think of a time when thinking of someone’s allowed me to call upon strength I didn’t otherwise think I would’ve had. I remember hearing about how Michael Jordan played a basketball game with a full-blown fever – and thinking about that during a moment where I felt physically down, and sort of that…but no, not anyone in particular. It’s the collective power of the human spirit to push itself past its own limits – you know, you really can identify a limit and then push past it. It’s an almost frightening moment when that happens, but it’s also exhilarating because you realize – wow, where does this stop? I think we’re all connected in that regard, and we can all influence each other. Especially when it comes to perseverance and commitment rather than particular abilities and physical attributes. I might never be able to slam-dunk a basketball as well as Michael Jordan, but I can certainly tap into his commitment, his wanting to go as far as he can. I can find that in pretty much…in humanity as a whole. There’s this incredible desire to push forward.

 

Wow. Okay: do you think this sort of joyful, party-centric way of thinking about things could be more common?

 

Well, I think it probably is, but not many people have the opportunity or the circumstances to pursue that – partying – as their main ‘thing’. I was definitely told ‘You can’t party as a living, that’s unrealistic, you need to get serious.’ And for whatever reason, to go with this thing that I was told was a ludicrous concept, I was like ‘No, I’m going to make this my whole thing, I’m going to make this feeling my thing. It’s not going to be a career in a certain field – although the entertainment industry certainly lends itself to it – I just wanted to be…I guess I wanted to be like a Santa Claus, this thing that you could really count on for a certain feeling. And I know people think about Santa Claus as relating to toys, but really the toys are just a means to an end. They’re a means to a joyful, cheerful feeling. And…initially it started as me wanting to cheer myself up, but then I realised that what made me even more cheerful was being able to get other people cheered up, and that it was almost like this perpetual motion bouncing back and forth, creating this joy-zone that occurs in each of us, but also between us in this mutual space that we both occupy – like at a concert, for example. And when I realised that I was like, okay, this is what I want to do – and when it became clear that I was able to do it well enough, that gave me some real encouragement to stick with it. And…yeah, that’s my thing, I want to be in a state of joy, and making joy. That’s what I’m supposed to do, I think.

HOMEWORK: It’s a multi-stager! If you haven’t already, listen to I Get Wet, Andrew’s seminal album of party/workout classics. If you have, try Close Calls With Brick Walls – or, if you’d like something different, Japan Covers, which Andrew talks about in the next part of this interview. Take 5 minutes today to sit down somewhere and think about something – anything

Thanks to Andrew WK, who is awesome (and to Charley, for setting up the interview). Come back on Wednesday for part two, in which Andrew chats about the 10,000 hour rule, flow, Gundam, and how to be happier. And party/drink/work/dance/live hard!

 
 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 169 other followers