For quite a while now I have been reading the fascinating blog (begin 2 dig) of someone who was only identified as “mc”. mc (a he or she - for a while I wasn’t sure) addresses physical culture and movement issues with a depth that you rarely come across. With some tenacity she really researches in depth and then explains her findings clearly so you can apply them. It is a fantastic resource. I was very happy to find out that my friend Rannoch (whom I also interviewed here) is hosting mc for a seminar at the end of the month. Rannoch suggested that I do an interview to dig a little more into mc and her approach.
I think you will like this interview - we go through some interesting material and - as ever - mc puts things in a clear way with great enthusiasm.
mc, I’ve been reading your material for a while now and it will be great to be able to meet you. I’m looking forward to the seminar.
Me too on all those points.
Can you tell us something of your background, both athletically and academically?
Sure but it’s pretty boring. i grew up in a sports friendly family where learning to bike, throw a ball, swim and skate were considered basics (Canada, skating, eh?). This was pretty much the same with the kids I went to school with. I ran with the cross country team in grad school, and it’s only since being in the UK that I haven’t biked on roads at all. This place scares me to death. Toronto, New York, no problem. Rural England. No way. The bike is on a training stand. I ride or row in the safety of my living room.
Academically, I hold an interdisciplinary PhD supervised in Computer Science where my main areas are Human Computer Interaction & Web Science. A great honour and happiness for me is that about a year ago I was awarded a Senior Research Fellowship by the Royal Academy of Engineering to look at how designing to support quality of life might help scientists (and others) enhance creativity, innovation and discovery. A lot of the certifications I’ve been doing around health, fitness, nutrition, well-being, movement all feed into that research goal: how do we design our information systems to better support what we do so we spend less time managing information and more time making the world a better place?
If you had to summarise your key area of interest, what would it be?
Well being; quality of life
I started this blog to record and index bits and pieces of information that I came across that were interesting to me, but it has developed a bit from there.
Why do you blog? What is your blog there for?
I write stuff to try to make sense of things. I post the articles that result from this process because I reckon that there may be folks who have similar questions but not the time/inclination to do all the heavy lifting to get at some sense of an answer. This is why I rely on authors I trust in other areas to apply their knowledge to other things of interest to me and where I’ve trust they’ve put in the time to frame the thoughts they have.
Clarence Bass is an inspiration here. Clarence Bass is a lawyer by trade who got interested in health and fitness, seems always to have been a fitness geek, and who has been engaging with fitness experts and literature for a couple decades now. Since the earliest days of the Web almost, he’s had articles on line reflecting on everything from lean eating to whether or not creatine is a good idea.
His work is always based on blends of the research, experts, and research literature. He’s a model of inquiry and walking the talk. (CH - great stuff - I also first found out about a lot great stuff - from Art DeVany to kettlebells via Clarence Bass)
Your blog has a lot of material on Z Health. I have read a lot about Z Health over the last few years and it is often presented almost as a miracle panacea. I bought the basic Neural Warm Up Level 1 DVD and it just seemed to be a bunch of mobility drills. Must admit to a bit of cynicism. What am I missing?
Wow, that makes me sad. (CH:sorry!) All that stuff on the blog and you’re still feeling cynical? What do I need to revise? I’d like to know what you’ve read that makes z-health seem like a miracle, too.
And yet I can kinda see how one might get that impression of “incredible results” because of where Z-health is focused. The framing of z-health is to get as fundamental as we can with what happens inside of us. The nervous system/brain connection is at the leading edge of this understanding, so z-health asks how does the nervous system work? Knowing that how can we work with that?
In brief the nervous system works fundamentally as a governor of our survival, detecting threat or no threat, threat or no threat. As soon as there’s a detection of threat, the body starts a response process to enhance survival. That may be releasing stressor hormones for fight or flight, or starting up an inflammation process for healing, or simply shutting down full power to a muscle or setting up a pain cry so bad we have to go all foetal. The goal of z-health is therefore threat modulation.
Now as to those mobility drills, it turns out that there are some great ways to talk with the nervous system via movement. We’re designed to move. We have joints in our bodies for a reason. So by moving the joints actively we are sending loads of all clear/no threat signals to the nervous system. As we move joints, we are also sending a very rich map of where we are in space to give the body increased options about how it can respond to a threat: the more joints perceived as richly mobile, the more responses to avoid an incident. The internet is sort of like this process: if an email message can’t get through via one route because it’s busy, another one is used. More options are better.
To make this practical, let me take evil shoes as an example. A quarter of the joints in our bodies are in our feet. When we wear shoes their range of motion is reduced tremendously because many shoes have very thick and very rigid soles: they may only slightly bend at the ball of the foot, and not really twist easily. As a consequence, messages that would be coming to the brain about where our foot is in space at any given time goes down. There’s just not as many points of information firing back to the brain to say where every little joint is moving. Consequently there is less information the brain can use to keep us out of trouble if it senses we’re stumbling. If the only joints its getting rich signals from are the ankles as opposed to the tarsals, metatarsals, falanges, what’s it going to do? There was a study out this summer that said no kind of sneaker mitigated the incidence of foot injuries in the context of the army’s training.
No kidding: all these high tech sneakers do the same things: cut off our optimal signalling.
The foot is one common example of what happens at every joint in our body. One of the challenges for many people is moving the bones in their upper spine back and forth or side to side. This means the back that should move in segments acts like a unit that’s not functioning optimally, so some other body part that is takes up the slack. Eventually pain will result. RSI, carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow are all examples more times than not of movement related compensations, joints that aren’t moving through their range of motion.
A lot of pain is movement based. Fix the movement, open up the signalling around the joints, give the body more of its options, and a way to map out where we are and what we’re doing in space, well being is enhanced.
So z-health can seem pretty miraculous in the context of someone who’s had say a lot of manual therapy for a back problem, or has had what feels like chronically tight hip flexors, and they do a simple drill with a z-health person and suddenly they feel ok; they can move again; pain’s gone. Our nervous system – some of the fibres – is sending signals at 300mph, and responds immediately and exactly to what we’re doing. So yes change can be that fast. When we do it for ourselves, we’re triggering off thousands more nervous systems signals than when someone manipulates us, so we also really amp up our body’s ability to learn and hold that new pattern.
Now as for that r-phase dvd seeming like a lot of mobility drills, what you find when getting together with a coach (even though this is all in the manual, sometimes it helps to be shown), is the precision of the movements is important. It’s sort of one of the things that’s distinct about z-health. Hitting the target is a big part of getting the benefit of this signalling. Moving the joints at different speeds comes into this process, too. And finally, R-phase is the movement fundamentals. It’s designed for folks to go into i-phase as soon as possible. I-phase gets out of r-phases neutral stance and into a more template approached to movement where we practice the drills in loaded positions, for example, in a lunge with both feet at 45 degrees, and the head titled – a la catching a ball while running. Again the focus is on precision of these core movements translated to more challenging, realistic planes of action. It’s why I call i-phase where we “train for the sprain” – prepping the bod for weird positions by practicing that mobility.
How did you first come across Z health?
When I was learning kettlebells, the trainer I went to started off class going through what I later learned was the Neural Warm Up 1. I’d seen something similar on a kettlebell DVD and thought well this is interesting. I asked what this stuff was, and then went to follow up on it online. I saw that there were no z-health certs in Europe and reached out with Rannoch to see if the z-health team would be interested in coming to Edinburgh to do a European cert. Happily, they were.
What are the major benefits it has brought you?
Personally, better performance.
In working with people I am making a difference with clients in a way I did not imagine possible before.
A lot of folks I see now are fed up. They come to see me with a hinky shoulder or sore back or painful knee as part of an issue inhibiting their athletic performance, and they have tried everything else – repeatedly – and so they’re about ready to try anything else rather than surgery. Some folks have already had surgery and are still not feeling great.
The thing is, they leave more mobile and more pain free than when they come in – and it sticks. It’s not something that stops a day later. They can keep using the tools they get with our sessions to take care of themselves better. I stand amazed. Our bodies, our nervous systems are just that amazing. It will be nice to get to a point of not being the last resort ☺
This is not something I ever imagined being able to do as a coach: help folks move better leading to hurting less or to hurting not at all.
Some of it seems like magic or voodoo – with prescriptions on which way to look etc. Is there a simple principle behind it all that you could summarise?
Once you get that we’re wired for survival and that everything in us is geared to survival – to perceiving and responding to threat, then the voodoo goes out and the “obvious” science comes in.
The eye position stuff, by the way, is related to the nervous system again with respect to our visual systems. We talk about joint mobility and awareness of where we are in space. That’s proprioception. And it’s third in our way of perceiving the world. First is visual, second is vestibular, third is proprioceptive. So by finding out by assessment if someone may have an issue with looking in a particular direction, and working with that, problems that seem intractable just treated with movement can suddenly open up. Z-Health really tries to respect how we’re designed. As an engineer, that’s appealing.
Turning away from Z health, what brought you to this whole physical training world? Those of use who spend a lot of time reading about this stuff can seem quite “geeky”!
We have bodies. They function better when they move.
As an engineer, I like to understand that function and how to enhance it. As a scientist, when something’s bust and there’s no principled hack to fix it, I like to be able to get fundamental enough to start looking for solutions. It’s geeky.
The world would be a better place if geekiness met physicalness and thoughtfulness regularly!
Why kettlebells? I find it amusing to watch the sectarian debates around kb lifting styles. It becomes almost theological. What do you think drives this? Science or business? What I mean is that there is cash in all this, the need to preserve market share.
cui bono, eh?
People have to make a living.
That said, I guess one of the most challenging things around any activity is getting information one can trust. Now I’m really interested in the fact that we’re these big brains creating worlds as if we don’t have bodies, but when we still have bodies. That’s part of my gig: how design computer information systems that have more respect for our physicality and how taking account of that may impact our creativity/quality of life and so on. But not everyone wants to spend big chunks of their time learning anatomy and physiology. We just want a workout program we can trust. So who do we trust? How do we assess trust-ful-ness when it comes to our bodies?
For me, as a science geek, I like to see assertions supported, claims backed up. That’s why I like Bass because that’s what he does, and since Bass respects Tsatsouline, I go see Tsatsouline’s work. And wow, how bout that, same thing: in all Tsatsouline’s texts, there’s practical experience of multiple experts, large cohorts who have field tested the work, and science that can be checked and validated as credible (not all folks who claim to use science pass that last check). So ok, I’m going to put some risk into trusting that there’s something solid here, give it a go. That’s what I’ve found with this approach to kettlebelling anyway.
Now this doesn’t mean that to say that I go for the “well it works for me so it’s good enough” as a sufficient rationale for something. How do we know that it’s working optimally as opposed to sufficiently or just ok? I used to think my hugely expensive high end hyper structured trainers were the absolute best thing in the world for me – especially when they had their custom orthotics in them. Did my back still hurt? Yes. Did I get faster or feel any different? No. My gait did look less ducky but was the core issue addressed? No. But man I was sold on those sneakers. Until I got some better information. And tested it. And got rid of all the squishy inflexible trainers I had. Do I feel better? Way. Now I’m not putting that down to just changing shoes. But it certainly seems to be part of a package of well being benefits.
Let me also say that one of the things I really like about z-health is the test it mentality. Check everything immediately. Z-health provides tools for a person to do these self-checks, too. Here’s an easy one: check the range of motion of your shoulder before you try something. Go do whatever it is you wanted to check. Check your range or motion again. Good? The Same? Worse? I like it. It’s science.
Do you have any views on the idea of functional training? There is quite a debate out there around the transferability of skill. Much of what I have been reading indicates that we should train muscles of strength then train the skills for our sport or particular movements, but not to confuse the two, i.e. punching while holding weights isn’t the best way to strengthen your punching muscles plus it will mess up the motor patterns / patterns involved in punching. Transfer seems quite limited. Then we have those who talk of functional moves – e.g. the hip snap of a kb swing will help your vertical jump. Where do you stand?
Let’s unpack this a bit. Modern functional training, like swiss balls, started in rehab to help people get back and up and running at whatever it was they had to do. Functional training for sport is more equated with sport specific training. And now functional training in general is something about training specifically to support “activities of daily life” if you look at Plisk of the NSCA or the ACE statement on same.
So on the one side there’s this training for every day life as part of so-called functional training, and then there’s the early gladiator drills seen as the first version of “functional training” or what’s previously been called “sport specific training” – like not asking pitchers to throw rocks as part of their training because yes indeed it will mess up their pitching. The activities of daily life version, however, sounds like celebrating compound movements with free weights to me, and may just be a way to communicate to more folks the value of getting a resistance program happening, and to think about things like “the core” rather than just bicep curls or jogging. It’s a model. Sometimes models are helpful. At least this one respects that we move.
I actually like the Russian model of athletic development divvying up General Physical Preparedness and Sport Specific Training (Sif’s Super Training is a great reference here). And indeed, sports Canada is going this way, too in terms of youth development with sport/athletics. Far more experienced and knowledgeable people than I have shown pretty compellingly that these distinct approaches have value. Most of us benefit from GPP work, which can include a lot of compound & dynamic work with free weights.
What’s crazy cool is to talk with some of the sport training coaches who have also certified in z-health and their prep work with their athletes now is not only muscular but visual and vestibular. For example one coach uses visual training drills for swimmers with them doing vision ( as opposed to eye sight) training drills in the pool with them, and these have a demonstrable impact on performance. You wouldn’t think that vision has a lot to do with swimming performance, but there’s that threat modulation thing again. That model seems to work every time. This approach gets to a different level than functional vs specific to say what let’s the athlete be as effective and as efficient as possible when we consider the whole athlete?
With respect to the KB and vertical jump: to my knowledge when I’ve seen the two discussed, it’s been about the plyometric effect of the overspeed eccentrics of using a lighter kb to whip the kb down and then power that up that’s been hypothesized as part of why swing work has done better than plyo depth jumps in one unpublished study. On the other hand, a lot of that effect may have to do with threat modulation, too: one can get in way more reps with a kb swing than repeatedly jumping off a box; far less taxing on our systems it seems.
In terms of diet you promote Precision Nutrition. Why?
I’ve written about this lately. Very few of us have any real baseline understanding of what works for us how in terms of the food we eat. We don’t really know ourselves with respect to food. Precision Nutrition is focused around eating habits first rather than calories. That’s used as a vehicle to get to a place where we can know that first and foremost we’re consistently getting a basic set of required foods into us for a good nutritional balance. From there, we can use that basis as a platform from which to test other things.
One of the big things tested for example is carb tolerance. So rather than saying starchy carbs bad, Berardi’s approach is: hold off starchy carbs to when we know they’re really needed – after workouts. Do this regularly for a month so we have a clean slate, and then see what happens after that if you have some starchy carbs at other times. It may be that Person A can totally handle them but Person B cannot. As a science geek, this get to a baseline then based on that knowledge, experiment makes so much sense. It’s a great way to get to know yourself with respect to food. I think we all deserve getting that self-knowledge around our nutrition. Otherwise, we’re simply lead by external proposals: starchy carbs bad; eat once a day, only eat fat from grass fed beef. Well ok, in what universe and for whom do these prescriptions make optimal sense?
So I used to be pretty religious about PN as a practice. Now, as said, it’s a really great way to get some core nutritional understanding about ourselves and to learn how to adjust foods for our goals. Another part of PN that I like is that it also spends quality time on how to monitor progress for body comp related goals. And likewise, as I’ve said in reviews, its forum is filled with experts who participate in discussions. I don’t know of a better place to get answers to nutrition queries based on science and experience without being dogmatic. A number of folks I respect there have been exploring intermittent fasting or eating only when hungry, and so on. But they’re all doing it from this fundamental base of knowing themselves around food, and PN has played a role there. Right now I’m going through my first ever bulking phase. Normally if I saw these numbers going up on the scale I’d panic. But (a) I know how to assess what of that is fat and what’s muscle progrees and (b) I know how to come back from this process. And that’s because of the approaches I’ve learned more at PN than doing various coaching/training certifications. It’s the full meal deal. And I haven’t even started about the expert training advice available there.
What is your take on all the primal / evolutionary fitness movements that have arisen recently? (MovNat for example)
Movement is good. It’s not about posture and being static it’s about being mobile. We’re designed to move. I’m not up on any claims in this space beyond seeing the vids that are lovely and make me think Hawaii must be a nice place to live if you can afford an ocean view. I get very wary of anyone trying to associate “primal” or “primitive” with anything we do. It’s like trying to find some authority in what we simply cannot know from the records we have. Yes we may have been stronger because of our hunter gatherer past; and sure Roman Soldiers hoofed it for eons. But so what? People in those cultures likely had about as much say in how their social infrastructure evolved as people today and so they adapted to the demands and resources of the People in Charge at the time.
We adapt to our environments, immediately and exactly.
Rather than looking at mystifying and reifying some romanticized version of the Noble Savage, it’s far more challenging to look at our current environments and say “how did we get to this place? Is this what we want? Is this what is good for us?” What is, to borrow again from Eric Cobb, the logical conclusion of this path?
Maybe it doesn’t matter if we’re weaker than a Neanderthal because we’re what we need to be for what we have designed now. But is what we have now what we want? I mean isn’t it silly that we have to invent routines and workouts, and set time aside to workout when we have a decreasing need for our embodiment? What does that tell us about what’s important to us and our voice in discussions about how we’re evolving? It seems so contradictory. At bottom, what’s the agenda in reaching back to our ancestors as faster or stronger?
You have embraced vibram five fingers. What difference have they made to your health?
Freeing my feet; getting with good mobility work to keep all my joints mobile and functioning, the consequence seems to be life is just easier. Seriously.
I am increasingly aware that there is more to fitness than movement. Where do you see other aspects of a well rounded life coming in? Things like social relationships, general outlook on life, stress management.
The question I ask my students is do you know what makes you happy? Do you know what is your heart’s desire? Is it what you’re doing right now? If not, why not? Where does what you’re doing right now fit in to that desire? How do you know this?
I wrote a lot over the spring about my experience with Getting Rid of Crap Around Goals. I’ve found, for myself, that letting go of stuff I supposedly “want” opens up a far wider field of view to enable better everything.
What can we expect at an mc seminar? What will I learn?
It’s the little things at the Z-KB one coming up with Rannoch. At the last seminar we did on z-health meets kettlebells, just about everyone had some experience with the basic kb moves we did: the swing, Turkish get up, and squats. But by doing some mobility work ahead of the kb work, and seeing how to apply some of the neurological principles that we cover at the start of the workshop, we tune up these familiar moves into something that at the very least will feel refreshed, better, stronger, smoother. Little things like eye movement we find can have a potent effect.
The idea is that while we model these techniques in some kb moves, folks will also see how they can apply this work and assess its benefit in the rest of their strength/health practice.
Finally, I know that there are a lot of people who read this blog who are not particularly gifted athletes – just average guys with jobs, worries and family responsibilities. How should we integrate training with everyday life?
Wow there are a lot of ways to answer that. My motivation to stay fit, since I have this body, goes back to Steven Covey’s discussion of why he works out every morning: it’s not about the reps; it’s about principles & what’s important. For me, being healthy, is fundamentally about being there for my family (and staying as far out of the ministrations of the NHS as possible). Consider the alternatives. We all know that there are huge costs on ourselves and families from health related problems, and that good nutrition, rest and exercise are pretty much the best defence for just about anything.Thank you too! See you at the end of the month....
On the plus side, we’re incredibly robust. We don’t have to change everything in our lives at once. If we drink lots of carbonated beverages or juice we can say “four days from now” (it’s good to plan) “I am not going to have my 5pm juice. I shall have water instead.” Just that one change. One less can of stuff a week. We might try planning one less meal in the car a week or one less snack in front of the tv a week. A promise to chew the food in our mouths a few more times at least once today. See how it tastes then. By building up small changes we develop a platform for success.
Likewise, if a person can do nothing else today, we can move something. Our eyes move because of the 6 main muscles attached to them. Sitting reading this, one could pause and move their eyes as far to the left and as far to the right as possible. Likewise diagonally and up and down. We could take our hands off our keyboards and move each finger individually in circles as large as possible clockwise then counter clockwise. Sitting at a desk we can tilt our ankles to the outside and the inside. We can stand up and sit down. Several times. We can turn our heads side to side.
We don’t have to do it all at once. That we start to let ourselves get some actions towards these new habits is key. Getting with a good health coach can be time and money well spent to help build a plan that will work and sustain those goals.
Thank you very much for the opportunity to connect with Conditioning Research. I am a huge fan of your blog.