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!

 
 

Swim hard: Cat Channon on 100 days of swimming, shark avoidance, and sourcing quality meats when you work 10-hour days

Cat Channon. Photo credit: Luca Sage.

Cat Channon. Photo credit: Luca Sage.

Fun fact: more people have climbed Everest than have successfully swum the strait of Gibraltar. A lot more. Around 4,000 climbers have made it to the summit of the world’s highest mountain, while a mere 500 or so have front-crawled the (roughly) 18km from Spain to Morocco – mainly because of fluctuations in temperature, exhausting currents, unpleasant wildlife and giant life-endangering cargo ships. It’s quite the challenge.

One of the few people attempting it this year is Catherine Channon, who I’ve known for nearly a decade now. We met in the videogames industry, where Cat’s specialty was – and still is – organizing some of the industry’s most insane parties – her finest hour being the launch of Scarface: The World Is Yours, where helicopters dropped off packages of Dom Perignon and motion-activated hidden speakers treated guests to calls of ‘You f***ing cock-a-roach!’ She also once fixed it for me to be chauffeur-driven halfway across the UK to a 50 Cent concert where M.O.P. made a guest appearance, for which I’ll be eternally grateful.

Cat lives hard. She’s combined a successful-but-demanding career in PR with an array of once-in-a-lifetime adventures, and manages to combine 10-hour working days with a training schedule that would crush most people working a standard 9 to 5. All that, and she’s still not averse to seeing off the odd bottle of wine. For her latest project, she decided to do 100 days of swimming without a break to prepare – and when she finished, I thought it was just about time to find out how she fits it all in. So I did.

LH: Hey Cat. Since I find it difficult to keep track of all the insane stuff you do, would you mind giving me a quick rundown of the highlights?

Sure. One thing I’ve been doing for three years is the gamescom bike trip, which involves cycling 352 miles across Europe in three days – this is my fifth year. After I got made redundant from my last company I did went and trained Muay Thai in Chiang Mai, went to Rome for traditional boxing, Rio for jiu-jitsu and good old Blighty for more boxing. I’ve done a couple of marathons, I’m doing the Great Wall marathon next year.

What else? Um, I worked on a fishing boat in the South Pacific for a while. I gutted fish for 48 hours straight, I am very good with a knife. I ended up doing two seasons working at Whistler working on the ski and snowboard festival. I basically wrote to the board and asked if I could go and make coffee for them and they went ‘Wait, we’ve seen your CV, you want to be a lackey again?’ – and I said ‘Yes!’ and stayed for ages. And I was a restaurant pianist in Bath for a while. And I’m trying to buy a lake in France and build a little eco-cabin out there – I’d like to run swimming camps out there and have a little getaway for people to drink wine and eat cheese with all the awesome people I know. I don’t drink in the week any more, but when I do drink it’s go hard or go home – and I never go home, Joel.

That absolutely puts me to shame. Okay: talk me through the Strait of Gibraltar thing – it seems insane.

Yeah, it basically is. It’s where the Atlantic meets the Mediterranean sea, so the current is what makes it really difficult. The last time I attempted it, the guy I was doing it with, the last kilometre took him an hour and a half of going nowhere. If you’re not going quick enough you’ll get swept into the Med. And then there’s the wildlife – there are fish in the English channel, but you can swim through them. In the strait you’ve got man o’ war, sharks, and loads of other quite unpleasant things. And shipping-wise you should be okay, but when you’ve got some crazy guy in charge of a cargo ship who doesn’t want to stop, it’s a little bit worrying.

You’ve already been stung once, right?

Yeah, I got stung by some sort of jellyfish. The thing is, most swimmers get stung on the arm or hand first, because that’s what goes in the water, obviously. But somehow, I managed to just swim face-first into one, so I had loads of massive welts on my head and neck and shoulder-blades.

Good grief. So why are you doing this at all?

I’m doing it for GamesAid, which helps out kids and youth charities in the UK, and they’re mostly small ones – so you know that every ten pounds you donate makes a massive difference to what they do. So that’s awesome.

I’ll certainly donate. Now, tell me about the 100 days of swimming thing. How did that come about, and has it helped?

Well, the first thing was that I really had to focus on it. That sounds crazy given that the training schedule was mental already, and swimming’s a big part of my life anyway – one of the things when I took my current job was that I had to be able to swim in the morning and swim in the evening. But I thought that the 100 days would really focus me, that it would make sure I’d get in the water whatever happened. And the other thing was that I had to do it in the sea, and that’s all well and good as long as you can get in the sea – unless it’s too rough, or too cold, or whatever. You don’t really want to be going in at night, so then it became about finding which pools I could get to, which ones were open at 11 o’clock at night, being able to get from London to Brighton and still getting a swim in. And then it was about how many hours I had to get in the pool – whether it was just a dip, or a rest day, or I needed to put away like five hours for a long swim, which means a weekend swim or holiday, or getting in late and swimming through the night, or getting up early and swimming into the day. And of course it was about raising the profile of what I was doing for getting more sponsorship money.

And you genuinely swam every single day?

Yup. I didn’t miss one. It was touch and go at points.

From a training point of view some days I’d have been better off staying at home and getting another hour in bed. There were two people who were a massive help, though. The first one was Fiona Southwell, who trained me for my first attempt, and was the first person to take me out in the sea here in Brighton. And then also was the coach for the channel relay last year. But then there was an awesome guy called Yves Watt. For me, I needed something really structured, because my life is quite busy, so working out when my meetings could happen, when my conference calls would happen, how many hours a day I’d need to do – my one-hour sessions, my speed sessions, my long sessions, my core sessions, my stretching sessions – running to try and get my cardio up in the early days, then some yoga to try and improve my flexibility and not get injured. On top of that I needed to work in flexibility and massage. On top of a ten-hour day and a four-hour commute. But Yves, worked with a my friend Hannah, a fellow swimmer and psychologist to put together a structured training schedule that was brilliant.

The last thing was that I did a week-long swim-trek holiday, which was brilliant – but it was a minimum of 5-6k a day. And then on the last day Yves flew out and I did a solid five hour day. I butterflied the last bit into the harbour – so I feel good and strong, and ready to go the full distance. I’m hoping to do it in six hours.

Wait, rewind a bit – you’re doing this alongside ten-hour working days?

Yep. My job was my life for probably 15 years, and it absolutely took over everything. But it turned out that made me quite tired and miserable. There was work and pub and…it was typical PR, basically. So I had quite a bad breakup, and I got really sad, and then I got into exercise to cheer me up a bit and started running to work. And I was like – you know what, I need an hour of exercise a day, running or swimming or whatever. And in a 24 hour period, reclaiming an hour every day seemed like nothing. But it’s been pivotal for me – wherever I am in the world, whatever I’m doing, I’ll research a Facebook group to swim with, or a personal trainer to train with, or it might be fight clubs, or something. So I can have that one hour of doing something I really enjoy. So that’s the one immovable in my life. And you know what? That’s one hour. It’s really not a lot. And being rigid about that impacts a lot of other things. And it means I have to be really organised. But it also means I get to do something I really like.

You seem to have a fulfilling life in other respects, though. You’re not just a swimming machine.

That’s probably the hardest thing. I should have given up booze before…er, this morning. I’m looking at a bottle of red wine right now. It’s open already, you know.

From what I’m reading in the latest research, an entire bottle of red once in a while isn’t the end of the world.

Good. Actually the tail end of the training’s been the easiest bit in that respect, because when you’ve swum for three, four, five hours, it’s like…okay, I can have a pint. And you know you don’t have to train hard the next day, so that’s fine. I had a month off booze two or three months ago, which was the point when I really needed to work hard and get my core strength up. Life’s too short not to have fun, and I do like a drink.

Sensible lady. So how do you manage to square all this activity with the people in your office?

Well, when I arrived, I was like ‘Okay, swimming is a large part of my life.’ I made that clear from the outset. And as long as I’m delivering, or overdelivering, then they’re happy. I’m responsible, a lot of people at work rely on me doing a good job in order for them to do a good job, so I can’t compromise that, that would be hugely disrespectful. The major proviso I make is that I need my Wednesday night – that’s my serious training, so I can’t put in a conference call then or whatever. That’s my one immovable, apart from during things like [videogames conference] E3. Otherwise I’m happy to do conference calls at 10,11pm at night. I’ll do calls on Friday night, so I don’t really get a Friday in the pub. But I get to swim in the early mornings, so that’s fine.

The other thing that’s been hugely helpful is that I’ve got a personal assistant, which has cost me…about the cost of a night at the pub, which I don’t really do any more. So that might be doing my bills, picking up my dry cleaning or whatever – it gives me my Saturday mornings back. It’s a graduate student, I just pay for a few hours a week. It sounds like a really dickish thing, ‘Oh, I’ve got a personal assistant,’ but it means that I can send thank-you notes to people, my mum gets flowers on her birthday, I can get nice meat from the butchers rather than the nasty stuff from the only shops that are open at 10 o’clock at night. I’m lucky that I’ve got that spare £30-£40 – but also, it’s really just cutting out one night at the pub a week. I basically pay £30 to get an extra three hours on the bike or in the park every week.

That is awesome advice, and now I want an assistant. Cat, you are an inspiration. Last thing I’ll ask you: if you could give every reader of this site one bit of advice, what would it be?

Make time for the thing that makes you happy and don’t compromise on that. For me that’s sport, for someone else it might be a person, or a hobby or whatever. I’ve been pretty rigid about that. And cut out the stuff that doesn’t matter. Cut out the people that don’t matter. Think about how you want your life to feel and look, and remove things that don’t help make that a reality.

BOOM.

HOMEWORK: If you’ve got a spare fiver (or whatever), go and sponsor Cat – it’s for an excellent cause, and the money really does go to good places. And then: think of one small thing – the smaller the better – that you can commit to doing every day, for 100 days. Drink a glass of water when you get up. Make someone laugh when you don’t have to. Do some goddamn pressups. Just commit, and get it done. 

 

How to get in shape with videogames: 4 ways that aren’t ridiculous

kratos

From time to time, someone devises a videogame that promises to get you in shape. They almost always fail. This happens for a number of reasons:

  • If it’s a game based entirely around exercise, the moves tend to be too entry-level to do any good. This is the problem with WiiFit.
  • If it’s a game based on cardio kit – the Tour De France simulators you see in your gym, for instance – the graphics and gameplay won’t be nearly as high-end as what you’ll see in ‘proper’, modern, triple-A games, so everything’s tinged with the smell of ‘budget’ and the game probably won’t be much good. 
  • If someone devises an accessory designed to link to existing games – the most common is an exercise bike that you have to pedal to go faster in driving sims – all it does is actively make the game less fun to play. 

The solution? Simple. Keep playing the videogames you already like playing. Just tweak the experience so that it gets you fitter. How? Here’s how. 

Beginner difficulty: Sit on the floor

Yes, it’s as simple as that. I’ve stolen this from Dan John, who likes to tell people that they can watch as much TV as they like – but only if they’re on the floor. The secret? It’s virtually impossible for a grown adult human to find one comfortable spot on the floor – as opposed to, say, burrowing into a cocoon on the couch – and so doing this means you’ll roll around, move your hips, and generally make up for some of the time you already spend sitting at your desk. 

Normal difficulty: Play standing up

Why do you have to sit down anyway? When you sit, your metabolism slows, connective tissues tighten, muscles shut off and circulation’s constricted. Standing burns roughly 1.36 calories a minute more than sitting. And according to the nice people at Precision Nutrition: “Uninterrupted sedentary time is strongly associated with cardio-metabolic and inflammatory risk biomarkers” — regardless of age, gender or ethnicity.” To combat this, more and more people are turning to standing desks – but if that isn’t an option, whether because of office politics or workplace derision, stand up while you play games. Not the likes of The Last Of Us, obviously – you probably want to concentrate on that – but if you’re logging in for, say, a three-hour stint of CoD online, why not stand? There’s even evidence that standing improves cognitive function, so you might finally get a big enough killstreak to use the tactical nuke. 

Advanced difficulty: Play for press-ups

I’ve got this one from Gym Jones’ Rob MacDonald, who once told me that he and his son do 10 pressups every time they die while playing God Of War. Oh, and did I mention that they play on the ‘Titan’ difficulty setting? In case you aren’t familiar with God Of War, please let me assure you – that is a fuckload of pressups. What I suggest for you, dear reader, is that you set a press-up penalty for death depending on how many times you’re likely to die.  In solo GTA V, where deaths are few and far between but loading pauses are long, you’ve probably got time for a max set every time you get Wasted. In two-player Street Fighter Ultra, it’s simple: the loser does 10 (winner’s choice of style, natch). If you’re already hunched over from hours of sitting at a desk, get a band and do pull-aparts instead. Don’t just sit there watching the screen. 

Mega difficulty: Play in a squat

Kelly Starrett, creator of Mobility WOD, suggests that you should try to ‘accumulate’ 10 minutes of squat time a day – details here. The problem? Sitting in a squat is tedious and – in the early going – painful. The solution: get your ten minutes while you play Resogun or Bulletstorm, and thank me when you feel spritelier and look awesome. You’re welcome. 

HOMEWORK: Do one of these – or all of these – this week. Don’t play games? Do them while watching TV. Don’t watch TV? Well, aren’t you just the best – do them while reading instead. Don’t read books? GET OFF MY WEBSITE. And live hard!

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

DragonForce-Maximum-Overload

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. 


HOMEWORK:
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. 

Then:

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!

YES.

YES.

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

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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.

Press-ups
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.

Pull-ups
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.
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