Zen and the Art of Exercise

Zen and the Art of Exercise

Here’s an enlightening Zen story. A European was trying to learn the art of Zen archery under the harsh guidance of a Master archer. It is not an easy art to perfect. The traditional Japanese bow, an ancient weapon, is very stiff and takes a unique combination of technique and strength to bend it, much less aim and hit a target. Master archers make it appear easy because their shots seem so natural and relaxed, but it takes years of training to learn how to do this.


In the early stage of his training, the European student was focused so intently on trying to hit the target that he was holding his breath, huffing and puffing, and his arms so wobbly that his arrows were flying all over the place.

After watching the frustrated student struggle almost to the point of quitting for a couple of weeks, one day the Master approached and told him to stop shooting. The Master then moved the target and placed it just a few feet in front of the student.

“There, you can’t miss,” said the Master. “Now you can concentrate on learning how to shoot the bow.” In other words, develop the proper technique that almost seemed to let the bow itself shoot the arrow to the target by focusing on the process, not the goal.

This Zen anecdote is applicable to many people as they learn new exercises in the Younger Games. They try too hard. They will choose a weight that is too heavy for them (males and females are equally prone to this) or hurry through without first paying mindful attention to mastering the right posture or movement to execute the exercise effectively (develop the muscles and neuro-motor patterns for which the exercise is designed) or safely.

Recently, we saw this Zen story played out in a Younger Games. There’s a circuit station called Wall Ball. It  involves throwing a weighted medicine ball against a concrete wall via a powerful rotation of the hips while maintaining an erect posture, then turning rapidly to catch the rebounding ball and letting it pull the body in a rotation away from the wall before launching it back onto the wall. Somebody picked up the heaviest medicine ball, as if the weight of the device, not good form, was what mattered. As a result, s/he ended up tossing it weakly with her arms, not her hips and torso, and as she fatigued, started to bend over further and further, inviting a lower back strain.

We stopped her and suggested she try a ball that had almost no weight at all to let her body get the feeling of the movement first, then as she got the right posture and sequence burned into muscle memory, she could start with a light medicine ball and go up from there. After that she got it right and found it more doable and fun.

Remember this Zen story when you learn a new exercise in the Younger Games, it’s not how much weight or how fast or how far. Those are just targets. Concentrate on letting your body learn good form.

Like the Master said, learn first to shoot the bow.











The Spice of Exercise

The Spice of Exercise

A long dead Englishman observed “Variety’s the very spice of life.” He might have added it’s also the spice of exercise.


In the gym world, there’s a constant supply of new gadgets and machines to exercise in novel ways. The truth is that you can get really fit without ever lifting the latest piece of gear by spending a lot of time simply moving your bodyweight and every day objects against the force of gravity. But most of us won’t for lots of reasons like our conventional lifestyles favor riding a car over walking or cutting a big log with a chainsaw instead of an axe.

At Cascade Boomer Fitness, we use lots of different gear in The Younger Games for two reasons. One is that most of us like novelty for its own sake. Eventually we tire of the same routine on the same weight machine or treadmill/elliptical.

The second reason, more important than escape from boredom, is physiological - your body thrives on new challenges.  You are equipped with over 200 bones and 600 muscles, all configured to enable you to navigate a multi-dimensional world which at any moment can present unusual performance requirements and risks. These can be as mundane as crawling under a table to get a fork that has fallen on the floor to the something more dangerous, like fording a fast moving stream or exiting the window of a car that has flipped upside down.

The Younger Games always include vital basics like pushing, pulling, lunging, squatting and rotating, but often they are enhanced to make them more life-like.

We use gym apparatus to add difficulty to the movements, sometimes light loads or stong resistance, to develop total body competence in 360 degree space. Often the exercises require complex muscle sequencing dependent on near-instantaneous communications via the central nervous system. This adds a cognitive component because you have to think, then act fast. Or replicate a movement you’ve never seen before, or have not done for a long time.

Doing this week in, week out, you increase your body awareness and overall physical competence. Not only do you avoid boredom, the variety helps you discover how capable you really are. That’s how The Younger Games add spice to your life.









Web of Power


Web of Power

More than muscle and bones enable us to perform the movements we enjoy and need to survive. Your entire body is linked together by a whitish web of connective tissue, called myofascia, that holds every muscle and organ in place. It’s also a vital source of your strength and power.

Watch this video of some English athletes training for a sport called parkour and doing some very unconventional strength training. You’ll see some exercises that look familiar,e.g., push-ups and  pull-ups, but notice some subtle differences. Those differences are the reason they’re much stronger and fit than most people their age, as you will be compared to your peers when you learn the lessons of what they’re up to.

Here’s what’s worth noticing based on current exercise science to promote strong muscles, bones, and myofascia. And it holds for young and old alike. This unique approach to exercise is one of the key features of The Younger Games.

Asymmetry -  Notice how they shifted sideways during their push-ups, pull ups, and still ring  exercises. They get slightly off-center. This places unusual stresses on the  muscles and myofascial tissue because they must respond to additional gravitational forces as they  move away from their center of gravity. The guy presses a rock, not perfectly shaped, hard to grip, awkward to hold..

Multi-Directional -  They don’t just move forward, they also move backwards and sideways. They don’t  just work on a flat surface, they climb and descend. All this multi-directional movement engages the muscles and myofascia in new ways, stimulating adaptation and growth.  These guys aren’t building isolated muscles like the guy preening in front of the mirror at the gym doing biceps curls, but building total body strength – the most  valuable strength there is to enable your body to safely perform a variety of  tasks and adapt to unexpected forces, like breaking a fall on ice .

Non-Repetitive &  Adaptive – Their bodies, whether hands or feet, must adapt to a broad
variety of surfaces, textures, and planes. They are developing incredible kinesthetic awareness of what their world feels like in a variety of situations and postures, and how to adapt to it.

Whole-Body – They’re recruiting multiple muscles and anatomy chains by constant, variegated movement  from head to toe, as opposed to sitting on a weight machine doing isolated calf presses. Nothing is more important to your physical competence in life than what you can do (or not) with your own body weight.

Bounce – Connective tissue is elastic. Much of our power results from loading and releasing energy stored in connective tissue, including  ligaments and tendons, not just muscle. In the video, you see principle at work during the burpees and when the guy in a push up (plank) position climbs the steps  doing a rapid downward then upward movement that “bounces” him from one step to another.

To learn more about the exercise science behind what we do and why the young athletes in the video are able to do what they do, read this excellent article by Divo Muller and Robert Schleip about remodeling and rebuilding myofascial tissue.

In The Younger Games, we use movements based on these same exercise principles. Some are similar to those in the video, just tamed down to be safe and fun for older adults.

As a result, you get  stronger, “bouncier” and less vulnerable to injury. Lifeproof.




That Damn Low Back Pain

That Damn Low Back Pain

Low back pain happens to most of us sometime during our lifetime, usually due to a minor injury like a muscle strain due to poor lifting technique or too much standing with poor posture. Some of us are lucky and eventually the pain goes away, rarely to return. However. for too many the pain never completely goes away, or the deep fear it will return.

low back painNicholas DiNubile, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon and consultant to many elite athletes and dancers, wrote a book called FrameWork for the Lower Back in which he discusses the origins of back pain and various treatment and prevention strategies. He makes a lot of surprising and useful observations.

The lower back is not a discrete body part like a gluteus maximus muscle, but rather a very complex convergence of multiple muscles, nerves and super-strong connective tissues. When something hurts in that area, the truth is that doctors, as well as other healthcare professionals like chiropractors and physical therapists, cannot easily identify exactly what the problem is. Even with a MRI, although they might see something that might contribute to it like a collapsed disk or problem with a vertebra, rarely is that really the cause of the pain. In those few cases there is an identifiable cause, sometimes a surgical intervention can help. Surprisingly, most surgeries to the back are to remedy problems with the legs.

According to Dr. DiNubile, the cure and prevention for most low back pain is the same: a progressive exercise program to develop strength and flexibility in all the muscles converging there. In persons with low back pain, frequently the back extensor muscles (the ones that enable you to lift your trunk off the floor when you are laying on your belly) are too weak and the hip flexor muscles (the ones that enable you to lift and bend your knees when you are on your back) are too tight. The exercises are  very, very simple and require just a few minutes a day. Every Younger Games is loaded with variations of these exercises.

The bigger problem with low back pain is that the pain tends itself to take on a life of its own, whether or not there’s actually a physical cause like a pinched nerve. When you have experienced pain in the past, you will naturally go out of your way, consciously and unconsciously, to avoid any movement that might cause it to return. Unfortunately, the medical community has also realized that the physical origin of the pain may be long gone, but the pain persists in memory anyway. Read this excellent  workbook on pain by physical therapist Greg Lehman.

With un-young adults this low back pain, real or imagined, nags them because old habits die hard. As Dr. DiNubile observes, in a person with low back pain significant muscle imbalances have existed for a long time. S/he has found ways to compensate for them that just aggravate the root causes of the pain via contorted posture or by limiting range of motion. Sometimes the lower back problems are constantly present because people will not give up a particular movement their favorite sport requires, when it was that repetitive movement which caused an overuse injury and pain in the first place. We see this in the gym, time and time again.

For many older adults, continuous lower back pain is a fact of life. If they are willing to be patient and persistent, the muscles and tissues can gradually be strengthened and remodeled to function better and with less pain. The process is not quick and easy. It can take months, even years, depending on the particular situation, but it will improve.

If you have that damn low back pain and the docs have ruled out a surgical intervention and see no risks with exercise, the best thing you can do is steadily work on strength and flexibility.  Learn to tolerate the pain with deep breathing and other techniques, and continue to methodically exercise and restore function as much as possible.

Dr. DiNubile warns of the worst possible outcome of pain avoidance: “Pain can lead to disuse, which leads to atrophy, which can lead to true disability.” Disability is beyond painful.