Unleash the Dragonforce: Herman Li talks flow, fighting and the 10,000 hour rule


What do power metal guitar, Wing Chun and Brazilian jiu-jitsu have in common? That’s a question not many people are qualified to answer – apart from Herman Li. Li is one of two lead guitarists for Dragonforce, the British band who exploded into popular culture when their most insanely solo-packed song, Through The Fire And The Flames, appeared in Guitar Hero 3. They’ve just released their sixth studio album – in which Li’s style continues to evolve, even though he’s constantly touring, producing, and learning martial arts. Herman Li, in other words, lives hard. So when my good friend Lorenzo Fraquelli, founder-owner of Chiswick BJJ, said he was teaching him, I asked if we could have a chat. And we did – about flow, the 10,000 rule, and why you should learn to talk to people, among other things…


Live Hard: Okay Herman – so if I’ve got this right, you practise Wing Chun, judo and BJJ, you’re a producer, you’re in a successful band, and you are insanely good at guitar. How do you have time?


Herman Li: Well, the short answer is that it’s better to do all that than spend time watching most programmes on TV or reading other people’s Facebook streams. You’ve got to remember that we live to do things. If you can turn something you do to relax or for enjoyment into something where you learn or improve…that’s key, that’s kind of the way I see the whole thing.


What’s a typical day like for you at the moment?


Well, there’s no such thing as typical, but for the last ten days I’ve been rehearsing. I get up, spend an hour doing whatever, then play the guitar for four, five six hours…have an hours’ break and then do another two or three hours. That’s not totally typical, but that’s what I’m doing right now.


Are you familiar with the idea of the 10,000 hour rule?


No, not really.


It’s this idea that anyone who puts a certain amount of disciplined practice into any technical field can become an expert in that field, and that it’s basically impossible to become an expert *without* a certain amount of practise. The 10,000 hours bit is slightly discredited, though.


Well, I think that hard work is better than talent, absolutely. Talent, I think, can make you lazy, because you learn really quickly. I feel like…I always say that I’m not that great a guitar player, anyone can do this if they spend the time on it. To be honest, I think anyone can do pretty much anything these days – with the knowledge, the information that’s out there on the internet, you don’t have to rely on people for a lot of things any more. In everything from martial arts to cooking, I’ve learned that it’s better when you don’t have to rely on someone else – you can find that knowledge and deal with the problem yourself.


Another idea that’s popular at the moment is the idea of ‘deliberate practice’ – concentrating hard on every moment you learn, and pushing outside your comfort zone. How does that square with your experience?


Well, for me, when it comes to learning something new, I’m not just disciplined, I’m a perfectionist. I don’t half-learn techniques. I certainly think you can get to a certain level without doing that, but to really push into the higher levels of something, you need to invest the time, you need the hours – beyond what you’re already doing. To get to a decent level might take ten hours, but to get to a really good level might take 100. The curve can steepen really suddenly, and you’ve got to be ready for that.


So how do you stay motivated when even tiny improvements take dozens of hours of practice?


Fortunately, there are so many great musicians doing something different from me. Music’s not a competition, which is great because there’s no loser – there’s only winning. But it does make you go ‘Oh, I want to get better.’ Seeing people doing different things from you should motivate you to be constantly evolving, to never stop learning.


What do you think the things that successful, productive people have in common are?


I think most successful people do their own thing. So nobody copies each other so much. I think Dragonforce have a unique sound, and that comes from doing our own thing. You have to learn to learn to teach yourself and you have to learn to process information, because there comes a point where you can’t succeed simply using things you’ve been taught. Everyone who teaches comes in with preconceived rules, and you need to find out what works for you.


Having said what I said about Facebook earlier, I think one thing that some very technical people can neglect is the social side of things. You’ve got two extremes. You’ve got the guy who obsesses over what he wants to be good at, and doesn’t bother learning social skills whatsoever. I admire anyone who can do that. But then you’ve got people who are really good at talking to people. You see that a lot of time in different jobs – you’ve got the guy at the top who’s really good at talking to people but has no technical skills, and everyone under him’s going ‘Oh wow, what an arsehole.’ But to be honest, you have to learn both skills – to some extent, you’re going to have to dilute one with the other. I did my time going ‘I don’t care about socialising, I need to learn the guitar,’ but then the other stuff came later, when I was touring and going all around the world, talking to people. You have to be able to talk to people, whatever your job is.


It’s interesting that you say that. I made a conscious decision to get better at talking to people when I was in my 20s, and I feel like it improved my life in a lot of ways – in learning, not just socially…


Yes, exactly. And to some extent, it’s like learning a different language – within one language, you have to learn to interact with logical people, with emotional people, how to deal with different types of people. And then, once you start teaching some kind of art, that’s what really tests your ability to do that.


Speaking of different arts, let’s talk about fighting. How did you get into that?


The science of it is what attracts me. It’s about physical, kinetic energy, how the body moves. Obviously I watched Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan movies when I was young and I was like ‘Oh, that’s badass, I want to be able to move like that.’ But later on, when you study it, you find that there’s such amazing science to it. When I was a kid in Hong Kong my parents thought fighitng was for thugs, they didn’t see the artistic side of it.


As far as BJJ goes, started with Lorenzo [Fraquelli] when we were both white belts, now he’s a black belt and I’m still blue. I need to keep moving to get to that extra level.


Do you find time to practice on tour?


Yeah, a few years ago I had a sound guy on the tour who was a kung fu guy, but also did wrestling, and my drum tech guy did kickboxing and MMA, so I had mats and we’d train kickboxing, jiu-jitsu, all that. For some reason, no-one in other bands was doing that at the time, but now I go on tour and lots of people are doing it. Matt Heafy from Trivium just got his blue belt. He’s only been training for a year but he’s been insane about it, he’s got the jiu-jitsu bug where you do it every day. Zoltan from Five Finger Death Punch trains too, he’s a black belt judoka. The first time he trained jiu-jitsu was with me on tour, and now he brings black belts with him on tour to train with. I’m not quite as serious as that yet, but it would be cool.


Do you think that being an expert in one field – guitar, say – helps you master the learning process you need for another?


Well, when I started BJJ I was getting choked out left and right and throwing up, which isn’t really a problem in guitar. But really it’s the mentality and the discipline – you already know how to learn, and that discipline plays a huge part in it. When I was first learning Wing Chun, they were obsessive about details – they’d yell at you when a hand was out of place. And that’s got a lot in common with the way I practice guitar, where I’m looking to be technically perfect at everything. You learn to break things down, to visualise and apply, to re-apply. You train your brain to learn, you train yourself to absorb techniques.

And do you actually enjoy it all? One thing that goes slightly against the ‘deliberate practise’ mantra is the idea of ‘flow’ – that actually, trying to find a practise state that feels fun and effortless is the key to fast progress. What are your thoughts on that?


Pretty much with everything I do I feel like the hours just disappear off the planet. It’s a great zone to be in because you’re not aware of the future, the past, you’re focused. But not everything can be fun, unfortunately. It’s like if you’re doing conditioning for martial arts – I don’t think anyone enjoys that. And certain techniques for the guitar are like that – when you’re learning them for the first time, there’s no fun in it. It’s only once you’ve learned them that the fun can really start.

Herman, it’s been a pleasure, and the album is awesome. Thanks very much. 

No problem, thanks for some interesting questions. Hopefully I’ll see you at the gym. 

Listen to new Dragonforce album Maximum Overload, out today. And re-read How To Talk To Armed Policemen: because talking to people is an essential life skill. Herman Li says so.

Something for the weekend: The Barber College Challenge

'I want you to be nice…until it's time to not be nice.'

‘I want you to be nice…until it’s time to not be nice.’

So I’ve been complaining for a while about how arbitrary most attempts to judge fitness are. The Crossfit Games, for instance, is clearly the best fitness competition, but you still need to master a lot of ‘skill’ movements to do well in it: from the Olympic lifts (high-skill movements that certainly test power but take years to properly learn) to kipping pullups and muscle-ups (more about efficiency of not-very-transferable movement than anything) to handstand walks (I’m pretty good at these, probably better than you, but I still don’t think there’s much point in practicing them) to double-unders (same as handstand walks). What these things really test is just how much of your precious time on this earth you’re prepared to spend learning skills that have little transfer to anything real. Consider this: if you spent more time this year working on double-unders and snatches than you did learning to breakfall or swim or climb up a building or punch somebody, you are wasting valuable be-more-like-Batman time.

Just so it doesn’t seem like I’m picking on Crossfit, I should mention that I don’t think there are any other decent all-round tests of fitness elsewhere, either. The NFL Combine gets no respect even among NFL players – it’s really a question of how well you can game a system that doesn’t really test any qualities you need in the NFL. Powerlifting tests how strong you are, but also your technique in two highly technique-dependent lifts (and the deadlift). Marathons are a great test of how fast you can run a distance you’ll probably never need to run, Olympic lifting tests how well you can manoeuvre a lovely straight bar around your body, and I quite like strongman comps but there’s no denying that you can win one while still looking (and wheezing) like a circus fatman.

Now to the point. I got angry about this to the point of going ‘Well, what do I do if I don’t want to spend my life doing handstands?’ And my friend Pieter Vodden, fully certified Gym Jones disciple and all-round badass, replied:

‘There’s always barber college.’ 

At this point, angels sang.

If you don’t get the reference, it’s a quote from Roadhouse, one of the finest films in Patrick Swayze’s career. And that was all it took for me to have two separate-but-related revelations, one after another. First:

I could make my own fitness challenge. 


It should be a tribute to Patrick Swayze. 

Why Patrick Swayze? Because he lived hard. His dad was a rodeo champ, and his mother was a dance teacher. He was offered dance and athletic scholarships when he went to college, and learned to skydive for real when he made Point Break. He did gymnastics, and he could surf, and fight. He was, apparently, a nice guy. He was awesome.

True, the Barber College Challenge doesn’t have crowds, or prize money, or plaudits for the winner, but who gives a shit about any of that? The point of a fitness competition is to test your fitness, and let you improve it. And so here we are. And the rules are simple:

1. You have to do all the below tests over the course of a weekend. The order doesn’t matter, and you can do them all back to back, or spread them out. Just get them done. And since the point is to test for weaknesses, you should probably do them this weekend. Don’t train for this: it’s supposed to be a reflection of how your training has prepared you for life, not how well you can prepare for a set of tests.

2. The Barber College Challenge works on the honour system. Yes, you can use RunKeeper or your camera or whatever to document your scores – and that’s what I’ll be doing – but you don’t have to. Again: this is about improving your life, not showing off.

3. There are only two rules. Cool? Cool. Onto the challenge!



BUY-IN: Diving forward roll over something.

Aha! Maybe you’re already out! But you shouldn’t be. Swayze could definitely do a forward roll. Everyone should be able to do a forward roll – and if you can’t, congratulations, you just discovered a weakness that you can improve instantly. I chose a Reebok step to dive over, but you can go smaller or bigger if you like. Try a shoe! A water bottle! A picnic table! And if you can’t do one, work on it.

Now: the actual events. I’m not posting standards for these, because, really, there are lots of reasons why you’d be better or worse at some of them, and I don’t want anyone getting discouraged. Remember: the only failure is not caring how good you are at any of these things.

Event 1: 1 mile run for time

Fundamental, even if you don’t have to flee from Johnny Utah: your cardio should be up to this, and it’s not like you’re going to row away from a mugger. Do it outside if you can, and preferably on a loop so that the elevation gain/loss is equal. If you’re doing it on a treadmill, honour demands that you set it to  If you’re a big guy, I can only apologise, but I’ll make it up to you on…

Event 2: Overhead press 1RM

The most Swayze-endorsed of all the events. Anyone who says they’ve never wanted to recreate the final scene from Dirty Dancing is a goddamned liar, and this is the closest you’ll get in the gym. Well, technically a push-press would be closer to the actual dance move – but going heavy on those gets a bit sketchy form-wise. So here you are: no leg drive, just a strict press overhead with a barbell. Better than a bench press, because it tests your core and stability. Yes, you need a gym for this, but you can probably get a day-pass from somewhere. Non-gym workout regime hasn’t prepared you for this? Do more handstand press-ups.

Event 3: Max pull-ups

Because Roadhouse-Swayze didn’t get in throat-ripping shape with curls. The rules are simple: straight arms at the bottom, whole head goes over the bar at the top, your attempt ends when you fall off the bar, and you should use absolutely minimal amounts of kicking. Yes, you’re going to wiggle your legs a bit if you go for a proper max, but no ‘kipping.’ You’ll know in your heart whether you do this properly or not. And Swayze knows too. 

 Event 4: Max press-ups

Honestly, I’d rather this was an all-out-effort on a Sonic Blast Man punch-machine, but they’re a bit of an endangered species these days. Instead, do these, strict: chest touches the floor at the bottom of the rep, arms are straight at the top. You can ‘rest’ in downward/upward dog, but as soon as any part of your body touches the floor except for your hands, toes and chest, the attempt is over. As much as anything, this will let you know if you’ve been slacking at the gym – almost anyone can do pressups almost anywhere, so if you’re terrible at them it’s essentially because you don’t do them enough. And when the lactate builds up, remember: pain don’t hurt.

Extra credit: BE NICE

Oh yes. It’s a key part of Roadhouse Swayze’s credo, and an essential part of life. I’ll leave it to you to decide what this means – perhaps you’ll help an aging couple with their gardening, or bring the concept of caffé sospeso to your local coffee shop. Perhaps you’ll spend the weekend working on your empathy…or perhaps you’ll skip the last part of the challenge entirely. If it’s the last one, please consider what Dalton would think of you.

HOMEWORK: Do the challenge! And remember: it’s not what score you get, it’s what that score tells you about your weaknesses and strengths. Post scores, thoughts and results in the comments (or via the Contact form if you’re shy). Either way, know that if you give it your all, Swayze would be proud.

UPDATE: Thanks to a few kind people who’ve contacted me since this went live, the winner will actually get a pretty sweet prize package, including goodies that I’ll mention in the follow-up to this. GET SWAYZE-ING.

A gallon of water a day: one not-very-weird trick to get ripped, save money, and look awesome

Not uncommon.

Not uncommon.


If you spend any time at all on the internet, you’ve seen those ‘one weird trick’ ads flashing away at the side of…whatever it is that you spend your time on. They’re usually for fat loss, skin care or making money, with the promise that lawyers, dermatologists and liposuction clinics will hate you afterwards. Do they work? I don’t know, I’ve never clicked one. 

Here’s something that will work:

Drink a gallon of water a day. 

This is one of those health tips that everyone dismisses as ‘obvious.’ Yeah, we’re all dehydrated. Yes, we should drink more water. Now shut up, I’m browsing for a new training programme. 

What finally got me to take this seriously was that UFC fighter Joe Lauzon, a guy who (I hope he wouldn’t mind me saying) has made the most of his genetics with extremely smart training, got his entire gym to start drinking a gallon of water a day for the month of July. Cue stories of improved skin, better mental focus, fat loss, energy, etc etc etc. Also: it’s free. So I decided to give it a go. I’ll talk about results in a minute. First, the obvious question:

How do you drink a gallon of water a day?

Yes, this is the most frequent question I’ve been asked, and yes, it’s legitimate. After all, I – and most people – have been vaguely thinking about drinking more water for years. And so while the annoying answer would be to say ‘With your mouth, dumbass’, I will instead take the high road and give you the exact system that’s worked for me. You can follow it if you want, but you certainly don’t have to. Here goes:

1. Get at least one, and preferably two, containers that hold roughly a pint of water – one for home and one for work. This does not mean getting two pint glasses – it just means measuring whatever glasses/jugs/protein shakers at your disposal already fit a pint. Some people recommend getting a gallon jug and carrying it around – I don’t. Apart from being inconvenient and heavy – and making you into ‘that guy who carries around the water jug’ – it makes drinking the whole thing seem depressing and unmanageable. 

2. Resolve to drink eight of those containers a day. You can drink anything else you like, including more water – but it doesn’t count. If you’re anything like me, you probably go ‘Well, I drink a lot of green tea, that’s hydrating, and I sometimes drink from the water fountain or have a sparkling water when I eat out, so…’ None of that counts. It’s too easy to overestimate your consumption, and too difficult to calculate. Just think about those eight containers. 

3. Space it out. For most people, this is the revelation. A gallon of water is an insane amount, but eight pints of water is easy. Here’s how I do it:

Wake up: Drink two pints of water while the kettle boils. 

Go to work: Drink tea, coffee as required to get brain working. At 11am, drink another two pints of water. 

Have lunch: Drink another two pints of water with whatever your lunch is. 

Go home: Have a pint of water as soon as you get home, then another pint with dinner. 

And that’s it. I’m done with my water by, at the very latest, about 9:30pm. It’s not difficult to manage, and even if you’re insanely busy, you’ve got time to do it – if you aren’t getting out of your chair at 11am and lunch, you should be. 

 As for results: I hit a rep PB in the squat three days after starting the GOWAD plan, and felt more energetic almost instantly. I stopped drinking so much tea and coffee. Also my abs started to make an appearance, but I don’t think that was any magical properties in the water so much as the fact that I wasn’t snacking because of thirst. And in case you’re wondering, there was actually a slight decrease in night-time bathroom trips – again, probably because I wasn’t drinking any diuretics – and a slight increase in Austin Powers-style mornings at the porcelain. Yes, it’s a plan with no drawbacks. 

HOMEWORK: Drink a gallon of water every day this week. Post your results in the comments.


100 pressups made easy: and other reasons why on-the-minute training is the best thing ever


Because my brain and nervous system are the product of millions of years’ evolution, I am fundamentally quite lazy. I don’t take well to wasting energy – I’m designed to be efficient and hold onto what my body still thinks are scarce resources. And because of that, a lot of my training is designed to trick myself into doing a large volume of work in quite a short space of time, because I’m not likely to do it voluntarily. If you’re one of my fellow humans, there’s a chance this will work for you too.
Enter on-the-minute training. I’ve been doing it in various combinations for most of this year, and it works for almost everything. It works because:

1. You can’t lie to yourself about your rest periods: you either get the work done, or you don’t.

2. It lets you keep your intensity high. If you set out to, say, hit a punchbag as much as you can in ten minutes, you’re going to be doing most of your punches with all the vicious, focused power of a mildly angry baby. If you do on-the-minutes, you can attack every set like Clubber Lang and then rest in the breaks.

3. Ten minutes (for instance) isn’t actually that long, so any workout that ‘only’ takes ten minutes is almost impossible to find an excuse not to do.

How does on-the-minute training work? Easy: you pick a move (or a pair of moves, or at the very most three moves) to do at the ‘top’ of each minute, ie when the clock ticks over. When the reps are done – whether that takes 10 seconds or 50, you rest. At the top of the next minute, you go again. The trick is, this works with almost anything. Here are some methods I particularly like.

Hence the title of this post. 10 pressups on the minute for 10 minutes is 100 press-ups. You’ve got the time to do that every day, and don’t pretend otherwise. It *should* be easy: if 10 pressups isn’t a laughably low number for you to do in a single set, then pick a number that is – even if it’s 1 – and do that. If 20 press-ups is nothing to you, do 200. You should be aiming to do a total volume of pressups that sounds mildly worrying – something you wouldn’t be able to get in three max-out sets, say.

The single easiest way to get good at pullups, bar none. I’d suggest doing them like the press-ups: I do five on the minute for five minutes at the start of every workout, varying between overhand, underhand, rings and gi grips. I’m not going to failure, so it’s just a warmup – but I’m still getting 25 quality reps done every day. Want more of a challenge? Do five on the minute, but just keep going until you can’t get your five done within the alloted 60 seconds. This is a fine way to prepare for your Sunday roast. Muscle-ups, another move where going to failure tends to be counter-productive, are fantastic for OTMs.

Olympic lifts
It’s quite easy to be a baby when it comes to Olympic lifting, and kid yourself that you ‘need’ five minutes’ rest between every set. You don’t: just pick a weight that isn’t going to crush you, and do a rep or two on the minute for a few minutes. I pushed my snatch up to near-bodyweight *mainly* by doing 8 sets of 2 on the minute, with 6 sets of singles in the clean & jerk for pudding. Even with a quality warmup, this is a fine way to do a decent Oly workout in under an hour.

Farmer’s walk
If you want to burn fat, build muscle, get lean arms, build your six-pack, improve your deadlift, look like a badass and get traps like Tom Hardy, *nothing* beats the farmer’s walk. And for fat-burning especially, OTM farmer’s walk is your friend. Aim for a heavy weight and a fairly short distance: I’d suggest carrying your own bodyweight in each hand, going for 30 metres on the minute…for ten minutes. Get that done, and you have my permission to eat anything you like for the rest of the day.

Battling ropes
Far too many trainers treat these fine bits of kit, now available in loads of gyms, as a form of rhythmic gymnastics where the aim is to make increasingly hypnotic patterns with the rope. This is bullshit. Just *savage* the ropes – do 20 seconds on the minute, for ten minutes, and slam them up and down like you’re beating Jason Voorhees to death in the final reel of Friday The 13th.

It also works with punchbag intervals, dips, kettlebell swings, rowing, prowler pushes, and almost anything else that doesn’t take a minute to do one set of. Try it today.

HOMEWORK: Pick a number of pressups that you think is about a quarter of your one-set max, and do that, on the minute, for ten minutes, twice this week. Hey presto: you’ve done a load of pressups. 

Try 4% harder

Just not that much harder.

Just not that much harder.

If there’s one thing I legitimately think I’m good at, it’s writing. It’s been my job for my entire adult life: I’ve written instructional books, children’s books, advertising copy, and features, reviews and news for a huge variety of magazines. Sometimes, I read an old review of a dreadful, long-forgotten game where I spent an hour trying to get a particular turn of phrase just right, and it still makes me laugh. I love writing. I would do it even if I didn’t get paid, and in many cases actually do.

Recently, I’ve been trying to help other people with their writing, which is a whole lot trickier. I won’t go into specifics here, other than to say that if you follow Orwell’s Rules Of Writing religiously (trust me, if you think this is easy, you aren’t doing it) and read Made To Stick, you’ll put yourself ahead of about 80% of people who claim to be writers.

There’s other advice I give, though, and sometimes it works, or sometimes it doesn’t. Some people whose writing I’ve criticized get better, and others don’t. I’ve thought for a while about the difference between those two people, and it my only advice to the latter group boils down to one thing:

Just try a tiny bit harder.

I can’t put this next bit any better than Dave MacLeod, author of 9 out of 10 climbers make the same mistakes already has, so I’m going to quote him:

4% less effort does not get you 4% less results.


Often, 4% effort gets you 90% less results.


The return on making that little extra effort is vastly out of proportion with the extra work required. Multiply it across all the aspects of climbing performance, and 4% extra in each one delivers a windfall of results that lifts you over huge performance barriers.


In practice?


A top climber will try the boulder problem 26 times to your 25, and do it on the last go.


A top climber will rest 20 seconds less per attempt on the climbing wall than you (hint: multiply the extra attempts by the number of sessions per year to see the effects of this on training load).


A top climber will hang on five seconds longer than you before [dropping off the wall] and see the move that will get them to the top.


Every single one of these things seems trivial, but taken together they explain why the best do what they do, and you don’t.


Obviously he’s talking about climbing, but this applies to writing just as well – because once you know the rules, and can engage the reader, effort is more or less all that’s left. So maybe you spend an extra five minutes on the introductory paragraph, and think of an opener that’s better than the one you wanted to use. You take a minute to read over your work, and find a cliche that’s easily replaced with a more interesting turn of phrase. You realise you don’t need something, and slice it out. Things get sharper, better, easier. Sometimes, you’ll write something twice as good as you might have, just by putting that 4% of extra effort in.

This works with most things.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Yes, the secret really is just: try a bit harder, get a bit more aggressive, don’t give up quite so easily…but it’s not something to dabble in for a day, or a week. It’s something commit to for months, then years, every time you do The Thing. The rewards come slowly, but they can be huge.

Try 4% harder. And watch things change.

HOMEWORK: Sit down with a copy of George Orwell’s rules of writing and any other bit of writing you like – or don’t – and see just how well it handles them. If you’d like an extra challenge, try rewriting it so it’s sharper, less cliched, better. See how well it works. And then do it forever.



7 things I learned from fighting my way around the world

The author outside Bodhidharma's cave.

The author outside Bodhidharma’s cave, halfway up Shaolin mountain. I have never felt more like Bruce Wayne.

“Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, and devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.”  ― Neal Stephenson


Earlier in my life, when I had fewer commitments and a much larger collection of Batman comics, I went through a phase of spending my biggest yearly holiday – usually a month or so, because I was a freelancer – going somewhere far-flung and learning to fight there. Back in Blighty, I’d put it all to use at my local boxing/Muay Thai/BJJ gyms, and then I’d realise I was rubbish at something and head out elsewhere to fix it. Some of the styles I learned were practical, others less so, and (spoilers!) I never reached the martial heights of a young Bruce Wayne. But still, those were experiences I’ll never regret, because of what I learned on top of all the teep kicks and armlocks. Because fighting is a tough thing to do, and it will teach you about the right way to do other tough things. Here’s some of what it taught me.

1. I am not so tough

Once you can hold your own in the soft, warming cocoon of your local gym, it’s easy to think you’re pretty badass. In the wider world of fighting, this goes away quickly. For me, the holy-shit-I’m-weak moment came when I watched my first practice at Taguo, China’s toughest san da school and home to more than 13,000 students. At Taguo, which is a major recruiting ground for the Chinese police and military, students train twice a day, in forms, sparring and weapons. Every day. For three years. It’s probably fair to say that most of them would smash you to bits in a fight. Being humble is good, and sometimes it’s a good idea to good somewhere where it’s basically impossible to be otherwise.

2. Overtraining is less likely than you think

Recently, it’s become fashionable to worry about ‘overtraining’ – like your three-day-a-week workout schedule is going to smash you into the ground if you don’t foam roll and douse yourself in magnesium every night. I don’t entirely disagree with this – I’m pretty sure I’ve dabbled with overtraining myself – but it’s certainly overexaggerated. In Shaolin, the monks train for about four hours a day. Ditto in many Muay Thai camps. In Brazil, guys will happily turn up in the morning, train MMA, then turn up again at night for two hours of rolling. Most of them have side-jobs, or at least other responsibilities. Very few of them have access to magnesium.

3. Fighters are friendly

Fighting is one of the best ways to see the world – providing you approach it in the right way. In Brazil, where BJJ is a fairly middle-class sport practised by the cool kids, I spent more than one night getting blitzed in some terrifying club that I’d never have normally gone in…with a gang of black belts at my side. In Shaolin, I played basketball with the monks, who consistently dunked on me despite having an average height of about 5’3″. In Japan, where I had a sling on my arm from a Thai-clinch accident, I ended up drinking with a local who’d spent six months practising Muay Boran after he watched Ong Bak (it later emerged that he managed to get shot in Afghanistan after watching Apocalypse Now). He even offered to spar with me. By getting on the mat or in the ring, you’re (hopefully) showing that you have a respect for the traditions of the country you’re visiting, and are willing to work hard and get beaten up. Money can’t buy that kind of connection.

4. …And mostly nice people

L-R: A load of total badasses, and some white belt noob.

L-R: A load of total badasses, and some white belt noob.

It’s rare that you’ll meet someone who’s good at Brazilian jiu-jitsu and also a total dick. This is a Darwinian thing: you will spend a lot of time ‘losing’ throughout your BJJ career, and if you haven’t got the ego to put up with that, you’re going to leave. Similar things are true of many fight sports, which means that most of the people you meet on a fight vacation will be excellent.

5. Basics are crucial

If you go to the right places, you will meet people who are incredible at fighting. And the best of them will mostly do the same thing: the basics. I met Brazilian black belts who could tap almost anyone with the same cross-collar chokes I learned as a white belt, and Shaolin monks who could make lian huan quan, one of the most basic forms, look more impressive than any acrobatic routine. The best guys elevate the simplest things to a level beginners can barely comprehend. This is a good thing to aspire to.

This is not a good Lian Huan Quan.

This is not a good Lian Huan Quan.

6. Bruce Lee was right

In Rawai Muay Thai, every day finished with 100 teeps, 100 knees, and 100 hard roundhouse kicks on the bag. That’s the most basic moves possible, for a total of roughly 2,000 kicks each in under a month. When I went back home, my instructor remarked on how much harder my kicks were. Flashy stuff is nice, but kicking really hard is better. Or, in the words of the little Dragon: ‘I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.’

7. You don’t need to go abroad to learn any of this

Travelling is fantastic for what it will teach you, and the experiences and fun you’ll have, but you don’t need it. I’ve trained in enough boxing, MMA and BJJ gyms in the UK to know that the instruction is just as good over here – and so are the lessons you’ll learn. The most important thing is to start: pick the thing you want to do, and start doing it. Do it as hard as you can. And see where it takes you.

HOMEWORK: Practice something basic every day this week. Improve.

Tell me again how you don’t like exercise

'Oh, you've tried Zumba and spin? You're right, you might as well just give up and eat cake.'

‘Oh, you’ve tried Zumba and spin? You’re right, you might as well just give up and eat cake.’

Perhaps you know (and dislike) one of those dreadful people who never miss an opportunity to tell you that they ‘don’t watch TV’. Not, crucially, that they don’t own one (which is obviously fine), or are picky about what they watch, or can’t sit through an episode of Spartacus without doing pullups (guilty), but emphatically don’t watch TV, like neglecting the medium that brought us The Sopranos and 30 Rock is somehow a mark of cultural superiority because it’s the same one that hosts Doomsday Preppers and Duck Dynasty. These people are usually a slightly different brand of elitist to the type who are proud that they ‘don’t read comics’ (two words: Maus, Persepolis), and I’m actually more contemptuous of both than people who ‘don’t read books’. At least the last lot usually have the decency to be ashamed of it.
And so, to exercise (please continue reading this post if you do exercise, there’s still a chance I’m going to have a go at you, and also you’ll learn my terrible secret). People who’ll happily tell me that they ‘don’t really like exercise’ don’t have the same effect on me as the comics/TV/books crowd. They astonish and sadden me. Here’s why.
Exercise gives you a better quality of life, I think we’ve established that by now. And, just as books can run the gamut from George Orwell to Dan Brown, and comics from Barefoot Gen to anything by Rob Liefield, exercise comes in so many forms that all they really have in common is raising your heartrate or making your muscles ache. Some are amazingly efficient at making you better – others are barely worth doing. But saying that you don’t like ‘exercise’ is as ridiculous as saying you don’t like films. In fact, it’s probably more ridiculous – there’s nothing about sitting still and watching actors for 90-120 minutes that’s ingrained into human biology, which is not something you can say about chucking a ball around or going for a run.
And I’ll go you one further. If you exercise but don’t do resistance training and cardio and mobility work, you are still doing it wrong. Even medical professionals recommend a combination of the first two, and I’m insisting on the third – because what’s the point in making it to 90 (or 80, or 60) if you can’t get off the toilet? So you need to exercise, and you almost certainly need to do the sorts of exercise you’d tell me you don’t like. Ah well. As a great man once said, life is pain.
So, in the interests of helping rectify this situation, here’s my terrible secret: I hate exercise. LOADS of exercise. Tempo-style bodybuilding training, for instance, I find absolutely excruciatingly dull and painful. I can’t stand it. Similarly, I don’t really like classes where people less fit than me yell at me to ‘push myself’, I don’t enjoy pilates, and I’m not a massive fan of hardstyle kettlebells, running clubs or anything that involves dance music.
But that still leaves loads of other stuff. For instance, I absolutely love deadlifting. I like rowing. I like doing metcons, and yoga, and any form of fighting that involves regular sparring. I like bouldering and gymnastics and ginastica natural and MovNat and kayaking and parkour and doing dozens of pullups while I get drunk in my flat watching old UFC fights. I love exercise, just like I love George Orwell and hate Dan Brown. And this isn’t unique to me: I know dozens of people who once thought they hated exercise, but then discovered that what they actually hated was doing cross-country runs or playing football and they actually really like roller derby or jiu-jitsu or Olympic lifting or whatever.
So here’s the take-home message. If you still sincerely think you hate exercise, keep trying different kinds until you find one you like. If you like cardio/conditioning but hate resistance training – or vice versa – do the same with them. Do powerlifting or German volume training or cycle sprints or ultra-running. Most of it works, and it’s better than doing nothing. If you have friends or relatives who don’t like exercise, do the same with them. Nobody really hates exercise: it’s not the way we’re built. You just have to find the one you like.
HOMEWORK: Do the sort of exercise you like this week, whether it fits into your training plan or not. Enjoy it. Remember why you like exercise. It’s one of the most important things you can do.

Lessons from the pain cave: how to actually do a 7-minute 2,000m row



Tip #0: Always listen to your power animal.

 [Ed note: you may want to read Fun Times In The Pain Cave before you get into this post. Or, if you're just here for the rowing tips, you may not. I don't mind either way.]

In my last post, I talked about the psychological benefits of doing a 7-minute 2k on a rower – a decent standard over the Olympic racing distance – and why you should have a go at one. In this one, I’m going to talk about how to actually get it done. Because there are clever subtleties to yanking on a handle 196 times over the length of Metallica’s One (minus the intro), and you, my dear readers, need to hear them. Let’s do this.

1. Row lots

Oh how glib – and yet, unavoidable. Because apart from strengthening your lungs, heart, and rowing-specific muscles, making the energy pathways involved in a 7-minute power endurance effort more efficient, and improving your confidence in yourself and ability to gauge how much pain you can take, practicing rowing teaches you lots of other things. Like: how the proper technique should feel, and how that varies between the first pulls and the final sprint. How 26 strokes a minute at a 1:40 pace feels, compared to 30. These are things you should know. And anyway, there’s a lesson here: nothing will ever make you as good at the thing as doing the thing. Row every time you hit the gym, even if it’s for a 500m warmup or cool-down. Row for recovery. Row.

2. Attack it from both sides

To do a decent 2k, you need power endurance. You need to be able to sprint, and to maintain a decent pace for a decent length of time. And so what worked for me was following a plan in which I’d do lots of short, hard intervals in a couple of sessions a week, followed by 5-10k recovery-pace rows (so about 2:20 per 500m) to get the blood flowing through my poor, ruined muscles on my ‘recovery’ days. Recovery days are the perfect chance to make every stroke count with proper technique, and also a good chance to experiment with ‘Power 10s’ – 10 hard strokes, in which your pace might get up to 1:38 or something. You will need these for the 2k, where you should sprint the last 250m or so.

I got my training plan from Pieter Vodden and told him I wouldn’t reveal it here: but one bit of advice I can share is that, if you do 10 sets of 500m with a minute of rest in between, your average pace is what you can hold for 2k. You’re going to need average a 1:45 500m for the 7-minute row, obviously. To quote Lena Headey from 300: it won’t be quick, and you will not enjoy it. But you need to get it done.

3. Get the damper setting right

This won’t make it any easier, but it will stop you unnecessarily hamstringing yourself. It really comes down to personal preference – if you’re a lightweight (under 5’10, probably)  you might benefit from rowing at a lower damper setting with a higher stroke rate. If you’re a giant powerhouse (in which case you should be aiming for something faster anyway – how does 6:45 sound, big man?), you’ll probably benefit from rowing at a higher setting with a lower stroke rate. I hovered between 6 and 7 for every workout and settled on 7 for the 2k, usually hitting between 26 and 28 strokes a minute, climbing to 30 in the final assault.

4. Get your technique right
Concept 2 have an excellent webpage about this, and it’s worth videoing yourself to compare what you think you’re doing with what you actually do. The most common errors, though, are the below:
Over-compressing – or going to far forward at the catch. Your shins don’t want to go beyond vertical.
Over-reaching – reaching too far forward at the flywheel.
Leaning too far back – you want to lean back to about 11 o’clock and then pull the handle in to you. You’ll see some people go back to almost horizontal.
Rowing with bent wrists – your wrists want to stay flat throughout the stroke
Chicken-winging it – you want to start off pulling with straight arms and then draw the elbows past the body with relaxed shoulders – not have your arms off to the side or bent at the catch.
The main thing I worked on in every workout was the idea of fast hands – pulling hard at the catch, then breathing out on the recovery. It might help to find a song with a nice 1-2-3 beat to work on this.
5. Warm up properly
This doesn’t have to be complicated. David Hart of Concept 2 says: ‘Generally you want to row at a gentle pace for 10-15 minutes and throw in a few bursts at race pace. Some people will have a more detailed routine where they build up to it, but that’s a pretty decent start.’
6. Start fast, and hold on

When I finally got the 7-minute done (on my fourth attempt), I went with a strategy graciously donated by Sir Matthew Pinsent, four-time Olympic gold medallist, via Twitter. Here’s the man himself:

‘Go off at 1.41 for 30secs, settle to 1.45 flicking 1.46. fight like hell to not see 1.47 in 3rd 500 & sprint if you can.’

This is basically exactly what I did, although I went out a bit too fast and really struggled in the holding on bit. I was ready for the last 250 though, because that’s basically 20 all-out strokes (those Power 10s again) and a final burst of utter savagery. Sir Matt again:

‘It’s the patch from 800-1400m that gets you every time. get your head round that and you’re home.’

Damn straight. In every attempt I made, the 1000m mark was the point where I started playing headgames with myself, internally going ‘You cannot maintain this pace, you’ll die.’ But that’s not true. You won’t die. All you have to do is the same as you’ve already done, a fraction slower, with a burst of effort at the end. You can even fall off the rower afterwards! It’ll be totally fine.

Here’s David Hart again, with a bit more detail: ‘If you’re trying to get the best possible time, when to start the sprint is probably key. Too soon and you’ll blow up and limp home; too late, you’ll have left something in the tank and be left with some what ifs. From a performance point of view, you probably want to be coming off your sprint, so that your times are drifting back to your average pace when you cross the line (e.g. You go from 1:45, sprint to 1:38 and then your times creep back up to 1:45 as you struggle to maintain your sprint for the last few metres). From a performance POV, that’s good. From a “how you feel afterwards”, maybe less so…’

SPOILERS: There’s no way you’re going to feel good afterwards whatever you do, so you should do exactly this.
7. Have a massive pizza
Preferably covered in as many types of meat as your favoured pizza provider can cram atop it. You’ve earned it, champ.
HOMEWORK: Go find a rower somewhere, and do a 5k working on your technique, messing with stroke rates, and getting a feel for what’s hard for you. Then check out the stroke graphs for the competitors at this year’s World Indoor Rowing Championships –  – and acknowledge that you’ve got a long way to go. LIVE HARD!


Fun times in the pain cave: what a 7-minute 2k row will teach you about life

Somewhere around the 6:30 mark, Marla Singer may offer technique tips.

It’s difficult to think of a good reason to set your sights on a 7-minute 2k row. It certainly isn’t enough to impress a decent rower – in the fantastic Lido For Time, 1984 Olympian Brad Alan Lewis regularly hits it in a boat, which is much, much harder than doing it on the industry-standard Concept 2 machine. Unlike a marathon, it won’t get recognition from your friends and family – 2k doesn’t sound like much, and even when you explain the time and effort that goes into it (probably more than it takes to get a shitty marathon time – I’ve done a 4:27 marathon, and the row took more training), they won’t really see the point. And most importantly, it is absolutely awful – I’d consider doing a marathon again, but right now, the afternoon after hitting a 6:59:7 – which took almost 12 weeks of dedicated training and planning, and left me slumped against a railing for ten minutes after the final sprint – I never, ever want to sit on a rower again.

That said, a 7-minute 2K is one of the most worthwhile fitness-related things I’ve ever done. Here’s what I learned from it.

(Targeted) hard work pays off

On my first attempt, I rowed a 7:43, which is basically dreadful. I was furious, because I’m generally in pretty good shape – and then remembered that I don’t fucking practise rowing. As I’ve mentioned before, I frequently need to remind myself that targeted hard work is the only real shortcut to anything, and so for a while I was certain that getting the right damper setting and fine-tuning my technique was all I needed to do to take 30 seconds off my time. It took about a fortnight for me to realise that this wasn’t going to happen, and that what I really needed to do was stop being a baby and start cranking the oars, three or four times a week, until I had the legs, arms, lungs and pain tolerance to get it done.

Olympic rowers are monsters

Apparently Sir Steve Redgrave decided he never wanted to row again after winning one of his many, many gold medals in rowing. I don’t blame him. Rowing is a special kind of hell, and I cannot even imagine what it takes to deal with the pain it takes for not one Olympics, but five. That’s 20 years of insane-level rowing, of doing workouts that are simply unimaginable to most people.  According to Brad Alan Lewis, when The Social Network came out it was reviewed on his local NPR affiliate KPCC. ‘The reviewer said that he had no sympathy for the plight of The Winklevoss Twins because clearly they had not suffered a day in their lives,’ says Lewis. ‘Clearly this reviewer had never rowed for Harry Parker, much less trained for the Olympics. The Twins have suffered on a monumental scale.’ To put this another way: if you think Tabata training saves time because it only takes four minutes, you aren’t doing it properly. If you’re capable of doing anything else worthwhile in the next 26 minutes after those intervals, you weren’t working hard enough.

Rowing will get you jacked

Narcissistic? Yes, but: I already do an insane amount of pullups and deadlifts, as well as two sports (climbing and BJJ) that rely largely on pulling. After ten weeks of rowing, my back has never been bigger. This is no surprise – a 1:45 500m basically involves yanking on a handle nearly as hard as you can, 56 times in a row. I ended up doing that 10 times in a single workout. Want the sort of back that gets remarked upon during yoga classes (this actually happened)? Then row like a crazy man.

You can prepare yourself for anything

I am not built for rowing. I’m 5’7 in shoes and my legs are pretty short for my height. But the hell with that – 7 minutes, as Rob McDonald of Gym Jones once told me, ‘Is not some epic ordeal.’ It’s not even that good. It’s hard – harder for me than, for instance, hitting a double-bodyweight deadlift – but that’s good. Because the point, really, isn’t the number on the counter – it’s how hard you hard to work to get it there. The point of voluntarily doing hard things is to make yourself better prepared for doing more hard things, voluntarily or not.

You can test yourself anywhere

If anything, the solitary nature of rowing on a C2 makes it an amazing training environment. In a marathon or a strongman event, there are people there to get you through it. On a 2k row, there is nobody but you. On the morning I did my 6:59, I rode the train to the gym completely hyped on espresso, warmed up for half an hour and then completely wrecked myself in seven minutes. If you can’t get to a competition, or don’t like competitions – it’s worth remembering that you don’t need them to test yourself. In fact, maybe testing yourself without the bells and whistles of a huge, organised event is better – because when you sit down to write your book, or design your business, or whatever other hard thing the rowing is really preparing you for, you aren’t going to have friendly aid stations and a neverending wall of cheering spectators.

Happiness comes from hard-fought victories

Or as Pieter Vodden, who helped me out with a training plan puts it: ‘The point is that the basic feelings of happiness reside in the achievement of goals. Let that hard-fought shit nourish you.’

…and it’s not even really that hard. 

In the 2013 Crossfit Games, one event involved rowing 2k for time and then immediately carrying on to do a half-marathon, with no rest. Jason Khalipa did the first 2k in a frankly insane 6:21, then settled down to do the half in 1 hour 18 minutes, averaging about 1:52 for each 500m split. That is ridiculous. Khalipa is taller than me but not much – and he’s not a professional rower. And he did that during a competition that last five days, where he did eight other events. Full disclosure: one of the things that made me angry enough to get the final sprint done was Steve Kowalenko, another Gym Jones guy, had heard about my little challenge and rowed a 6:59 a couple of days before me, just because he could. Don’t compare yourself to the standards most people are prepared to settle for – look at what’s actually possible, and then work back from there.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Brad Alan Lewis:

‘If you want to train for the Olympics, I say go for it. You may not get to the Olympics, but I’m pretty sure you’ll learn something along the way – who knows, maybe even something useful, such as disciple or courage or respect. Is training for the Olympics the best use of your time? That’s not for me to say. Start cranking the miles, (100 miles a week, come hell or high water), and see where it takes you.’ 

HOMEWORK: Row a 500m as fast as you can – not 2k, that’s insane. And read any (or all) of Brad Alan Lewis’ rowing trilogy: Assault On Lake Casitas, Wanted: Rowing Coach, or Lido For Time: 14:39. He’s a better writer than me, and better at rowing too.

Everyone’s in terrible shape, and fit-shaming isn’t helping

You cannot be weaker than this guy.

You cannot be weaker than this guy.

If you live in London or Manchester, there’s a chance that you’ve seen a poster for the London School of Business & Finance’s new campaign, Beat Phil. Phil, we’re unsubtly informed, is the Platonic ideal of an office shit: he takes credit for other people’s ideas, uses the word ‘synergy’ a lot, and – unforgivably, according to the LSBF – has a ponytail. Less obviously, he also keeps himself in shape: he does situps in the office, refuses to eat biscuits (mentioned on the website’s cookie disclaimer), and – according to his spoof Twitter feed – makes all his meetings standing-only for ‘increased productivity and glute definition.’ What a fucking nerve.

For the moment, let’s ignore the fact that situps are counter-productive compared to, say, planks and ab wheel rollouts, because that doesn’t seem to be the point. The point, according to the LSBF, is that worrying about fitness is the mark of a five-star arsehole – just like wearing sunglasses indoors, having a soul patch or liking Nickleback. Does this seem insignificant? It shouldn’t. In the UK, 64% of people are now classified as being overweight or obese (though, admittedly, that’s only according to the archaic BMI system), while – according to an accelerometer study, rather than self-reporting – only 6% of men and 4% of women meet the  government guidelines for daily physical activity. This isn’t just about seeing your abs, being able to run up an escalator or even avoiding an early heart attack – there’s significant evidence that exercise can help to prevent everything from osteoporosis to Alzheimer’s disease. It raises serotonin levels, and can help to combat depression. Physical activity and proper eating will drastically improve the quality of your life, as well as its length. And most people aren’t getting enough of it.

Thankfully, I’m lucky enough to have a job where this isn’t much of a problem. Every lunchtime, most of the magazine head to a gym or the park, then eat a cooked-from-scratch meal with a decent hunk of veg in it. We snack on a communal tub of almonds. We have a cupboard just for protein powder. We suffer the gentle mockery of other departments – it’s impossible to participate in charity cake sales without fielding some awkward questions, for instance, and we’ve had complaints about cooking broccoli in the microwave – but, thanks to the environment we cultivate, we’re a healthy, happy team. This hasn’t been the case in other jobs, where eating out of Tupperware, turning down biscuits or going to the gym (as opposed to, say, the pub) on a Friday lunchtime were met with everything from bemusement to outright derision. And this happens everywhere: Maria Kang, a mother of three who posted her post-pregnancy abs online with the slogan ‘What’s Your Excuse?’ was hounded by the Huffington post and temporarily banned from Facebook for ‘hate speech.’ Even the language of the media is faintly judgemental – consider, for instance, how frequently the term ‘fitness freak/fanatic’ (or the slightly less aggressive ‘gym bunny’) are used to describe someone who goes running three times a week (for bonus points, contrast with how rarely a moderate drinker is called an ‘alcohol fanatic’). This is fit-shaming, and if it puts one person off increasing their activity levels or tackling their addiction to sugar, it has made that person’s life worse.


Over the last year or so, the most important trend in fitness has been compliance: not inventing new exercises or kit or foodstuffs, just getting people to do the stuff we already know works. In Precision Nutrition, one of the world’s best-regarded nutrition qualifications, it makes up literally half of the programme – after learning about macronutrients and the Krebs cycle, students spend the rest of the course working out how to get people to actually follow the diet they’re given. Roy F. Baumeister, professor of psychology at Florida state university and author of the bestselling Willpower, suggests that self-control is largely a matter of habits – developing good ones in place of bad ones. Little and often is more important, to more people, than a big push – it’s about saying no to sugar or doing a handful of pressups before the shower is better than doing a two-hour gym session once a month. Habit formation is key, but it’s also difficult: and everyone nudging you to just have a biscuit or skip the gym and have a pint only makes matters worse.

Here’s a final point to consider: fit-shaming largely doesn’t matter to the people it’s aimed at. Men whose Twitter profile is a black-and-white shot of their abs aren’t going to skip chest day because of a bit of gentle heckling. I wouldn’t stop training if my office unleashed a chorus of boos every time I grabbed my gym bag, because I know that being strong and healthy makes me feel better in every single way that counts. The people fit-shaming hurts are those just starting out on the path to a healthier lifestyle – the ones who are just trying to eat a bit better, sit down a bit less, and move a bit more. Snide remarks, nasty Tweets and the exercise-equals-irritant stereotype don’t help them at all. Oh, and neither do situps – if you really want to train your abs at work, do the office-chair rollout. If you’re really going to #BeatPhil, you should probably be stronger than him.

HOMEWORK: Do some pressups in your office this week. Tell anyone who heckles you that they’re representative of everything that’s wrong with Western society.



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