Obsession & Motivation

It has often been said that Man is a creature of obsession.

Obsession is defined by Dictionary.com as the domination of one’s thoughts or feelings by a persistent idea, image, desire, etc.

That pretty much sums up the whole concept of obsession.

So what has obsession got to do with motivation?

I started thinking on this after a little episode at the fitness corner.

I was going through my motions as usual one fine evening at my favourite haunt, muscle ups, handstands, front levers… You get the idea.

Then a couple of guys and one gal came in to the fitness corner, and their attention was invariably drawn in a matter of moments to this topless psycho torturing himself with positions that would be deemed highly unusual to your average Joe on the streets.

They were talking about me (God, don’t these people realise how loud their whispers actually are? Or maybe I really did look so much like a self-absorbed nutcase that they didn’t think I could hear them.). But anyways, the girl made a few really nice comments, appreciating the amount of effort and exertion that it obviously took me to torment myself thusly, with front lever holds and whatnot.

The two guys who were with her (and who were obviously smitten with her, hehe) turned quite an indignant shade of purple, and their eyes practically gleamed with envy. One of them, quite loudly it seemed, gave a disparaging remark:

“Aiya, show-off la.”

If I were a younger (and vastly more hot-headed) version of my current placid and peace-loving self I would have had a few strong words with the blustering young rascal. As it was I completely ignored the trio, and got on with my training.

The two guys managed to pry their girl away from the fitness corner scant minutes later, after unsuccessful attempts to capture her admiration with some pretty pitiful-looking pull ups that they were obviously unprepared for. I really didn’t know whether to feel amused or sorry for the couple of clueless young punks.

Boys can be such awful pricks at times, eh?

But the accusation of my showmanship bothered me more than I let on. The thought stuck in my head for quite awhile, and I wrestled it to sleep later that night.

I often tell people this, and I quote myself:

“You can lie to your parents, no problem. You can lie to your teachers, sure. You can even lie to the policeman. But there is one person in this world who you should never, ever lie to. That’s you. If you have to go and lie to yourself, something’s very wrong with you. It’s either a self-esteem issue or an ego problem, or a combination of these two. People with low self-esteem tend to lie to themselves cos they can’t take the truth; so too do people with huge egos.”

I have always prided myself on my honest self-appraisal, and seen it as a vital instrument for universal success. If you can’t even take your own measure properly, you’re pretty much screwed in my books. Don’t even bother trying to take the measures of other people around you. Success starts with you. Or more accurately, it starts from within you.

And so I began to turn the question over in my head:

“Was I doing all that I was doing, just to show-off to others?”

And I got to be honest, a part of me answered yes. After all, every human being craves compliment and admiration. It’s a deeply-rooted psychological complex that I don’t think any man has ever completely freed himself from. Sure, the better ones among us have learnt to manage and moderate this need for affirmation, but that doesn’t mean that these people don’t feel swell when you compliment them on their looks, or their bodies, or their brains, etc.

Why is the media and performance and entertainment industry such a huge, booming and enduring one? Why do writers and artists of all arts and forms all over the world covet the chance to get their works publicised and published, and thus be seen and read and appreciated by everyone else on the face of the planet?

We, the homo sapiens, are an attention-loving species, ‘migo. That’s why almost the very last one of us blogs and tweets and facebooks nowadays. We just can’t keep ourselves to ourselves. We have to share our lives, however mundane, with everyone else. It’s a need for affirmation that drives us forward constantly, and relentlessly.

But ultimately, it is my belief that those individuals who are scaling great heights in their fields of work are those who have learnt to thrive on the appreciation of their own work. In other words, to truly tread on the path to greatness, your motivation has to come from within, rather than without.

And self-motivation often traces its origins from a sense of obsession.

I can relate this to the many young chaps who have approached me over the years asking me to teach them stuff like the muscle up or the handstand. They confess that they want to learn these things cos they’re deemed to be “cool“, and what is left unspoken is the obvious fact that these are things that can be used to show-off, to friends, to families, to strangers, and most importantly, to the prospective girl (or girls) at school or in the neighbourhood.

And none of the guys who have come up to me for my guidance with such express reasons for their desire to master the bodyweight skills that I exhibit have ever lasted for more than a month before they gave up their pursuit completely.

This is because their motivation stems from external factors and benefits. And this type of driving force is not nearly powerful enough to overcome the sheer tedium and pain of the training that is required for even the slightest hope of achieving a small semblance of the skill that is necessary for one to be able to surprise or impress at will or fancy.

And a guy like me who has stuck the course for the fourth year running?

I was thinking to myself: What if one day I woke up and I was the only human being left on earth? Would I still do what I do now, with no hope at all of an appreciative audience and admiring onlookers? If the accusation that was laid against me was true and I was doing all of these physical feats only as a means to the end of showmanship, I would most likely quit the endeavour altogether, with the purpose assumed of the undertaking now utterly lost.

And a smile broke across my face. Hell, I thought to myself, I won’t stop cranking out this shit even if all that was left around to watch me were some birds and bees. Cos ultimately, I enjoyed watching (or at least feeling) myself doing the stuff that I do, and even if I was the only goddamn living thing left on the entire planet you’ll still catch me handstanding and front levering my way right up to the very last breath that I’m ever gonna take. And I’m going to feel real swell doing it, too.

You could call me obsessed. But more importantly, you should call me motivated.

People tend to talk about obsession like it’s a bad thing. But check these people out and they are likely only average or mediocre fellas at what they are doing in life, if they even know or feel what they’re doing at all. Really successful chaps know the power of obsession. Cos when you come right down to it, obsession is the most powerful source of motivation, a perpetual internal engine that will drive you and make you outperform and outlast all of the people around you who’re just not as into it (whatever this “it” is) as you are.

There is a reason why Man is made to be a creature of obsession – the motivation that we derive from our obsession is the very thing that has driven us to such dizzying and breathtaking heights in every conceivable pursuit that has ever captured our passion and imagination.

What? You want to be the best at what you do? Well my friend, then you better make sure that you’re obsessed with doing it. 🙂

~ This post is written by Lionel Ng, part-time Personal Trainer & full-time Fitness Enthusiast. ~

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Rings Training

Rings training has been around for a long time, since the 1800s.

Today, it has evolved into a formal apparatus and discipline in the sport of artistic gymnastics practised predominantly by male athletes, due to the staggering strength requirements of a typical competitive rings routine.

We have all seen it before on TV when the Olympics are being aired – heavily-muscled men with cannonballs for deltoids, bulging biceps and huge lats that resemble meaty wings, performing breathtaking routines that include spectacular swings and brutal strength elements.

Most of what we get to see of the rings discipline is pitched at such an advanced level that the average fitness enthusiast will tend to shy away from it, thinking that rings training is something reserved solely for the elite and the professional sportsperson.

However, while it is true that rings training is tough – the need for the practitioner to stabilise the freely-moving apparatus places a much greater demand on both muscle and joint strength as compared to the use of a static bar, anyone who’s in reasonably good shape can incorporate rings training into his or her fitness and exercise programme.

Sure, it will probably take you 6 – 7 years of training for 6 – 8 hours a day, 6 – 7 days a week to achieve the level of skill and proficiency that is exhibited by an Olympic rings gymnast, but you can still achieve plenty with 1/2 hour sessions on the rings, 2 – 3 times a week.

I have just gotten my own set of wooden rings along with a few like-minded friends about 2 weeks back, and I have been blown away by the sheer versatility of this ancient apparatus.

I know I’ll be raising hairs on some people by saying this, but if you’re serious about building some real strength and muscle, forget about all the new-age fancy stuff like your TRXes and your suspension trainers. The rings are a piece of time-honoured equipment that has been in use by athletes for more than 100 years, and it has helped build some of the strongest and most impressive human physiques that our planet has ever seen.

The unique challenge that is presented by the circular shape of the apparatus develops enormous grip and forearm strength when handled correctly. While it is entirely possible to use a normal finger grip on the rings, if your aim is to eventually perform more than just simple hangs and pull ups with the apparatus, you will have to learn how to do the false grip.

A false grip simply involves you gripping the rings with the meat of your palm, with your wrists flexed powerfully downwards, so that your hands and forearms resemble a pair of muscular hooks. This grip allows you to bring your torso above the level of the rings, so that you can transit into a huge variety of moves (when you become strong enough).

Another important aspect of rings training is the massive strain that it places on all of your upper body joints – the wrists, elbows and shoulders must be kept tight for you to even have a hope of stabilising yourself in basic positions. Rings gymnasts owe their prodigious physical development to the sheer amount of straight-arm strength that they employ – think iron crosses, maltese crosses, planches and inverted crosses.

Ease into rings training by practising simple supports to get your upper body joints, especially the elbows, used to the type of straight-arm strength that will be needed for you to progress to the more advanced moves on the apparatus. Over time proper training with rings will give you joints and tendons of steel.

Although rings has been the traditional realm of male athletes, there are women who have accomplished amazing feats on the apparatus. Lillian Leitzel, a circus performer in the early 1900s, could reportedly perform 27 one-arm pull ups on a suspended ring, along with a series of one arm holds and levers.

CrossFit has brought rings training back to the fitness community at large in a big way, and the Internet abounds with videos of lady CrossFitters banging out dozens of consecutive muscle ups on the apparatus. During the Ido Portal upper body strength coaching certification course I had the distinct pleasure of witnessing such a specimen of the fairer sex in action for myself – a female CrossFit Asian Games champion, making ring muscle ups look like a piece of cake.

If you were to get your own rings, I’d suggest wooden ones for better feel and grip as compared to their plastic or metal counterparts. This eliminates the need for wraps or chalk on most movements, and hence cuts alot of hassle. My own set of rings come from Rogue Fitness, which offers a huge array of sporting equipment and is the official equipment supplier for the CrossFit Games.

Easy to set up, easy to use, and easily portable. The rings ship in a cardboard box, and the whole set consists of a pair of rings (duh!), a pair of heavy duty nylon straps with sturdy metal buckles for securing and adjusting the length of the set-up.

For now I’m limited to performing a very basic rings routine which I’m sure a 10 year-old gymnast could pull off with ease and aplomb. But hey, I’m not a professional, and I’m just getting started. 🙂

My routine consists of a muscle up to a L-support, and then a drop to inverted hang, and lower to straddle front lever, before pulling out of the front lever back into a muscle up. I’m also training to lower myself from a support position to the coveted iron cross, and I’m making some progress and getting stronger in that respect.

If you are new to rings training, start out with whatever you can do, and build yourself up progressively as with all other forms of training. I’d say it’s wise to master the straight-arm support and the muscle up first, before you move on to stuff like planches, levers and crosses.

I know rings training may seem like a pretty intimidating prospect for those of you who’re thinking about incorporating it into your routines, but do not worry or fret. No one’s born a gymnast – gymnasts can do what they do simply because they train. So can I. And so can you.

So for those of you out there who’re serious about your strength training, and are looking to add a new dimension to your trunk and upper body work, look no further. Rings training will build you a great deal of strength, and because you’re working with your bodyweight the ladies will not need to worry about looking like He-Man or the Hulk from working the rings.

If you’re not chemically-aided or drug-assisted in any way, your body will retain its ideal proportions from bodyweight strength work. That’s the reason why gymnasts have such aesthetically-pleasing physiques – slender and supple for the gals and lithe and muscular for the guys.

Would you like to have the strength and physique of a gymnast, and master a host of cool skills to boot? Rings training is the perfect, age-old answer for the well-informed modern-day fitness enthusiast. 

What would you call a hundred bucks, give or take a little, for something this awesome?

Me? I’d call that a good investment. 🙂

~ This post is written by Lionel Ng, part-time Personal Trainer & full-time Fitness Enthusiast. ~

3 Squares

You may be wondering at the the title of this post. What’s 3 squares? And what has it got to do with diet?

Actually this is an idea articulated by Paul Wade inConvict Conditioning 2. 3 squares simply refers to 3 square meals a day.

Paul Wade gripes about how people nowadays are overcomplicating things unnecessarily, especially when it comes to exercise and diet.

We always get a earful from supposed fitness gurus who tell you it’s best to consume “5 to 6 small meals a day”, rather than the traditional 3 squares. But looking at today’s fitness community in general, I’d say that men and women used to fare much better on simple systems and simple diets.

I think there are many reasons why most places and cultures in the world have been practising 3 squares a day for millenia. While it’s no harm grabbing some light snacks in between your main meals if and when you’re feeling hungry, it’s downright inconvenient for most of us to be consuming 5 to 6 small meals that are more or less evenly spaced out throughout the day.

Assuming you’re a normal fella who’s awake 16 hours of the day. If you’re going to have 5 to 6 meals a day, it means that you’re going to be eating a significant amount of food every 2 – 3 hours. This means that your gastrointestinal system is going to be constantly lined with either freshly- or recently-ingested food, and you’ll be constantly digesting the stuff that you’re feeding into your body in a more or less steady stream.

I’m no biologist, but I feel that having 5 to 6 substantial portions of food going into your tummy in 2 – 3 hour intervals daily seems like it’s going to place a considerable amount of stress on the gastrointestinal tract. Having something light to keep up your energy levels before your next major meal is okay, but I certainly wouldn’t advocate splitting your food intake into 5 to 6 even parcels and ingesting them every 2 – 3 hours.

Mankind has always been fascinated by his own ingenuity, and we have always delighted in coming up with new and fancy ways of doing stuff. While this spirit of innovation and experimentation may work well for us in the field of science and technology, I question the usefulness of such over-inventiveness on the areas of diet and exercise.

Of course, it is always wise to seek an understanding of the scientific workings that underlie our dietary programmes and exercise systems. But sometimes, things stay the same over long periods of time for a good reason. The human body has not experienced any great changes for a good while now, and so the things that have worked wonders for the bodies of our forefathers decades ago should be as effective as they were then as they are now.

It is obvious that people are starting to realise this in the field of exercise. We hear talk of kettlebells and other similar forms of “old school” training methods making a comeback. I believe that it is only a matter of time before the diet world recognises the same. When people start to realise that all the over-emphasis on micro-nutrients and diet programming isn’t giving them the results that they want, they’ll come to learn that sometimes, it’s better to stick to what’s tried-and-true.

If you’re eating 3 good, square meals a day, consisting of a sound mix of grains (or grain derivatives), meats, fruits and vegetables, with a few snacks (fruits, nuts and seeds are recommended) thrown in between these dietary mainstays, you can’t go too far wrong. So forget about all the hassle that comes with counting every calorie and every microgramme of micronutrients that you’re ingesting, and instead just focus on eating soundly and sensibly.

3 squares. Because sometimes the more things change, the more they should stay the same.

~ This post is written by Lionel Ng, part-time Personal Trainer & full-time Fitness Enthusiast. ~

The Curse Of Tradition

Tradition is something that anchors us in an ever-changing world, giving us a sense of continuity and constancy in the continually-shifting tapestries of time and fate.

However, tradition can become a curse when our contextual environment evolves beyond that which gave birth to our culture originally.

The typical Chinese diet can be considered quite a balanced and healthy affair, with rice as the staple source of energy-giving carbohydrate, and side dishes that include meat and vegetables which can be cooked in a variety of ways.

This age-old combination of carbohydrates from the rice and proteins from the meat, along with the essential vitamins and minerals from the vegetables, and often the nourishing liquid from soup, covers all bases. The Chinese diet is quite comprehensive in its approach, and seeks to balance out different forms of food and nutrients, influenced by the ancient philosophy of yin and yang, as well as receving a good dose of traditional Chinese medical wisdom, which plays no small part in dictating the dietary components and preparations for the traditional Chinese community.

However, you’ve probably observed that alot of Chinese people that you see around are slightly pudgy at the least, and downright overweight at the worst. I’ve noticed this phenomenon for quite some time here, in Singapore, and it occurs particularly with adults. 

Now why is this so? Here’s my take on it:

The typical Chinese family who’s having rice as the main staple during mealtimes are consuming way too much of the stuff. This is something that’s probably being reinforced by traditional Chinese culture. I’m sure if you’re Chinese and you’re a kid, and you have one of those typical family meals you’ll be hearing your parents or your grandparents urging you to eat, to eat more, and to eat your fill.

If you’re a parent or a grandparent, as the custodian and enforcer of culture and tradition, you’ll probably be the one telling the young ‘uns to fill themselves up, often by consuming more rice. The importance of eating rice for energy is something that’s deeply-entrenched in traditional Chinese culture. I guess this is a holdover from our peasant roots, where a large proportion of the Chinese population either grew crops in the fields or worked on farms. These people worked an average of 8 to 10 hours of gruelling manual labour per day, and hence required alot of carbohydrates in their diet to sustain their energy output.

Even when industrialisation created a manufacturing boom in the towns and cities a large bulk of Chinese were workers in the factories that were churning out textiles and other produce, or labourers at the docks or on other means of mass transportation, moving the goods to be distributed to other parts of the land for trading and commerce. The work was often heavy and tiring, and hence continued the importance of rice-heavy diet as a source of energy for everyday life.

Today, alot of us are slogging away at our jobs, but for the most of us, the nature of our work is rather less physical than that of our forefathers. The focus of labour has shifted, with machines doing most of the heavy lifting, and humans filling up the roles of data entry and management, or other similar forms of administrative toil.

Therefore, we are generally using alot less energy than our forefathers who were farmers, labourers, factory and dock workers. But the legacy of our ancestors’ labourious lives has been preserved and passed down in the form of our diet, where great emphasis is placed on a hefty consumption of rice. And as a result alot of us are eating alot more than we really need, and hence the love handles and spare tyres around our midsections.

The important thing is to know how to scale your diet according to your levels of physical activity. If you’re a marathon runner doing 10 klick runs every other day, you probably need to eat alot more carbs than the office worker who’s just working out his fingers on his keyboard. So be mindful of how much you’re eating versus how much energy you expend, and it’ll be a quick way for you to manage your weight gain/loss.

So the next time you’re told to shovel more rice down your throat, think twice about what you’re doing. Don’t let your tradition become a curse, and most importantly, don’t go cursing the next generation as well. Tradition is good, but like all other things it must change when the need arises, or it will be rendered obsolete and irrelevant and actually do more harm than good when adhered to out of a sense of blind loyalty.

~ This post is written by Lionel Ng, part-time Personal Trainer & full-time Fitness Enthusiast. ~

Can You Be Bothered To Succeed?

This is something that should seem to you as a piece of common sense, but as we all know, good ol’ common sense ain’t all that common nowadays.

I get people asking me how to train for pull ups, without doing any pull ups, on a regular basis. I answer them with a simple question: how does a kid learn how to walk?

By trying to walk, obviously. If you want to get good at something, you better get down to practising it. Alot.

Most people nowadays are just plain lazy, but you can’t really blame them, not with the way that our society is going.

We are exposed to a near-constant stream of bombardment by tempting promises for swift or even instantaneous results in every form of media, from every conceivable industry, ranging from adult fitness to children’s education.

People get so brainwashed by all these marketing gimmicks that they are lured into the mistaken belief that there is a magical shortcut to every imaginable undertaking. And then the average man and woman wonder at why they are not succeeding in their daily ventures, while a few of their counterparts invariably rise to the top of the social ladder. And then they’ll attribute the success of these others to some “magic formula” which they will be willing to spend exorbitant sums of money to learn and obtain.

And what happens to these people? They’ll probably spend the rest of their lives pondering the success of others, and some will spend a great deal of dough to try and learn the “secret” of success and excellence, and they’ll dedicate their whole lives searching for a magical shortcut that doesn’t exist. How pitiful. 

Instead of looking so hard and spending so much, the so-called “secret” which is not so much a secret as it is a piece of common sense can be found all over the world, in places like children’s books and stories – fables with their immortal morals that were always meant to imbue our tender offsprings with lifelong knowledge and wisdom of the essence and essentials of life itself.

How sad that these distillations of age-old wisdom are being swiftly replaced by mind-numbing video games and lucre-driven tales spun mainly for the purpose of generating a handsome amount of monetary profit from the sales of toys and related branded merchandise. It is of little wonder, then, that good old common sense and the wisdom of ages are being swiftly, and perhaps irrevocably, subverted by covetous thoughts and superficial desires for shallow material wants and comforts.

You want the true, and enduring secret to lasting success, in any and all forms of human endeavour?

Let me answer you with a simple question: can you be bothered to succeed?

I always like to respond to obvious questions with a question. This is beacuse the fella that is asking me the bleedin’ obvious, obviously isn’t thinking hard enough on his own. So I need to jolt that idle lump of grey matter in his skull by countering his lack of cogitation with something that will really set him to thinking, perhaps for the first time in his life.

Compare this approach with the traditional method of Q and A:

You ask me: how can I be successful?

I tell you: go forth and work hard.

Chances are, you’ll have a slightly confused look on your face, and some of the rusty gears in your head will try and turn a little, but they’ll end up deciding that thinking is too much hard work, and they’ll go back to their usual languid state of existence. And you’ll never be really successful in the things that you want to do or achieve.

It’s not that I’m an arrogant bastard who thinks that I’m way smarter than everyone and anyone else. It’s just that those people who approach me and ask me questions that are very broad or general in scope, or questions that have answers that are downright obvious, questions like “how do I keep fit?” are almost always individuals who have not made real thinking a habit.

Oh and by the way, 2+2=4 doesn’t cut it in my book. Neither does x+2y=5, y=1, hence x=5-2(1)=5-2=3. That’s not thinking. Or at least not the type of thinking that truly sets us apart from our plant and animal friends.

A bleedin’ computer programme can do that for me. In fact, a bleedin’ computer programme can probably perform it faster and more accurately than you. In fact, a bleedin’ computer programme can probably do some math in a minute that will take you decades, along with a few thousand tonnes of paper and ink and a scientific calculator, to discover that you have been profoundly confounded, and are utterly unable to compute.

Alright, alright, I exaggerate. My friends always tell me that I like to blow healthy things all out of proportion. I guess that’s what makes me a storyteller. After all, we all enjoy the sensational stuff, yeah? That’s the primary reason why millions of people out there are into comic book heroes and fantasy adventures and science fiction wars, ‘migo.

Okay back to track. So who are the people who have made real thinking a habit?

An example is a guy who comes up to me and asks me a question like this: what’s the best way to train for pull ups? And then he goes on to ask: what sets and reps should I do?

Note the difference in mindset between someone who asks a question like this, and the chaps who ask me how to train for pull ups without doing pull ups.

The only viable shortcuts, and the only shortcuts that should be sought out and tapped, are technical ones. You ask someone who is more experienced the process of his success, and you cut out the parts in which there was trial and error i.e. unproductive downtime. This is how we progressed as a species, in our many and varied fields of learning.

Someone achieves something, a handstand for example. He is entirely self-taught and he mastered the exercise through a process riddled with trial and error. When he teaches a student, the student should master the exercise at a faster rate than him because of the nature of instruction in which the process of achievement is refined by cutting out the chaff and leaving behind only the essentials for success.

When I learnt how to do a handstand on my own the process took me many months. And even up to this point in time I am constantly uncovering nuances in the technique of the exercise, which when successfully incorporated will bring me to a higher level of mastery. The students that I teach invariably learn how to hold a handstand quicker than I did – they do not have to spend time figuring out alot of the stuff that I tell them right off the bat.

For example I maybe spent a week or two learning that how to tense my glutes. But when I teach I bring it in as a cue right from the start, and my students can often do it within minutes. This speeds up the learning process greatly, and intelligent learners will always seek out that which will streamline and expedite their technical mastery of the desired subject, without the intention of skimping on the hard work that must accompany the technical practice.

I admit, it is a fine difference and a fine line, and all of us (including me) are lazy. It is fast becoming one of my most-repeated sayings that humans are instinctively lazy creatures, and that our minds and bodies are constantly seeking the path of least resistance. But we need to manage this instinct in the sense that our “shortcuts” must come from making our work more effective and efficient, and not from the desire to cut out the work altogether.

It’s something blurry and something that I still struggle with, and I think I shall continue this struggle for the rest of my life, but it is also something that I know if against which I do not struggle I will become fully possessed by an idle spirit, and success will be but a fanciful pipe-dream to be wistfully related to indifferent friends and passers-by.

I was invited to attend a seminar on Total Immersion swimming by Tang Siew Kwan, the founder and owner of Fishlike Aquatic School. He said something during the session which resonated with me: if you want to succeed, you must be prepared to work harder than the people around you.

And here I have a confession to make, of how I was the proof of what Tang said, just scant minutes before he made his aforementioned assertion. When I received the invitation to attend the seminar and before I left home to attend it, I spent about a half hour reading up on TI swimming online.

This is a habit that has been drilled into me from my army days, in which the utmost emphasis is placed on the conduct of proper force preparation. This also relates to one of my favourite quotes, which I came across in the Jason Statham action thriller The Mechanic: Amat Victoria Curam, or Victory Loves Preparation.

During the seminar Tang fielded several questions, to which correct answers from the audience are rewarded by small but highly-attractive tokens and prizes. One of these questions was posed to us after we were shown a few videos of TI-trained swimmers, before and after they were schooled in the technique.

The question was: what are the 4 characteristics of TI swimming?

I shall not go into the answer here (you can find out easily using wiki if you’re interested), but let it suffice to say that I made a show of studying the videos and when I was presenting my answer (which I already know before I attended the seminar) I similarly made a small pretense of responding rather haltingly at times, to give the impression that I was not entirely sure of my observations, when in fact they had been ascertained by my prior research.

And so as people all around me looked impressed and Tang politely and graciously commented that I had good powers of observation and that he could use a coach like me (courtesy, of course, from a most esteemed host), I went up to the front and claimed my prize (a limited-edition swimming cap which I am sure more than a few members of the audience were hoping to win), all the while knowing that I had won it not through any lowly means of trickery and subterfuge, but simply because fortune does not favour the bold; it only favours those who are prepared for victory.

And then barely a minute passed before Tang stated that success is dependent upon relative hard work. As I sat in the audience with my prize in my bag I thought to myself: how true.

In our modern rat-race society where people are clambering all over one another to succeed, true excellence must come at a price. And the price is simple, if not easy, to pay – hard, intelligent work.

You want to be the best, you better work harder than the rest. Especially if your rivals are more talented than you are.

Can you be bothered to succeed?

~ This post is written by Lionel Ng, part-time Personal Trainer & full-time Fitness Entusiast. ~             

Scapular Control & Trunk Tension

I believe that scapular control and trunk tension are subjects that I have written about previously, but never together.

Today we shall examine why a combination of these 2 principles form the basis for the effective and efficient execution of most strength-based movement patterns that are expressed through the upper body.

Let us take a look at some classic bodyweight strength-building exercises for the upper body. The first 2 movements that spring to mind are the pull up and the push up.

Who are the guys (or gals) that you see struggling with these 2 exercises? They are mainly people whose shoulders are shrugging up in the pull up, and those individuals whose shoulder blades are excessively retracted during the push up.

I have covered the general cues for the scapular (shoulder blades) in an earlier post, so I shall not go into them again in any great detail here.

Just a quick summary for those of you who haven’t caught my previous article on the relationship between upper body strength and scapular positioning:

1. The scapulae should be depressed and retracted for most hanging/pulling movements such as the front lever and the pull up.

2. The scapulae should be depressed and protracted for most pushing/pressing movements such as the planche and the push up.

3. When you become proficient at a particular movement you may be able to perform it with any shoulder positioning, although the general cues that I’ve outlined above in the previous 2 points optimises your strength and power output.

So let’s go back to the 2 examples that I’ve highlighted earlier on: elevated shoulders during the pull up and retracted shoulder during the push up.

For people who are new to these 2 exercises and who have not strengthened and conditioned their scapular complexes sufficiently, inadequate scapular stabilisation and control can be a real problem.

When your shoulders shrug up during the pull up instead of being neutral or depressed, your lats (the large wing-like muscles that line the sides of your back from armpit to waist) tend to become disengaged, and that makes it extremely difficult for you to generate much pulling force on the bar, seeing as how the lats are the powerhouses for most of our bodyweight pulling movements.

When your shoulders blades are protruding from your back during push ups, the excessive retraction usually relates to a sagging bodyline, and makes it harder for you to engage the muscles of your chest optimally in the pressing phase of the movement. When the scapulae are out of whack with the rest of your body, your upper body musculature becomes inefficient, as alot of these muscles are actually attached to the shoulder blades.

The other important facet concerning strength-based upper body movements is the creation and maintenance of trunk tension.

You will invariably find that keeping your abs and glutes slightly tensed during exercises like the pull up and the push up makes them easier to perform. If you are new to this technique you may find it unfamiliar and hence uncomfortable at first, because your body is a creature of habit and you will often feel some mild discomfort doing something that you are not used to doing initially.

But once your body gets used to expending that certain amount of energy to tighten your trunk, you will find that many bodyweight movements become easier to perform, because it is far easier to move something rigid, as compared to shifting a sagging mass of loose muscle and tissue.

You may be able to get away with minimal trunk tension and sloppy scapular positioning on some of the “easier” bodyweight movements, but as you progress to the more advanced stuff that are mechanically disadvantaged in terms of leverage, a combination of sound scapular control and voluntary trunk tension becomes a must. Most of the time for alot of these moves your entire body down to your legs has to be tensed about as rigidly as a board for you to even have a hope of holding the positions.

If you can hold a front lever or a planche with loose shoulders, sagging abs and legs that flop around in the wind, I take my hat off to you, for truly you can claim to have achieved absolute mastery of these movements, with monstrous strength to boot. 

For the rest of us mere mortals, we have to rely on scapular control and trunk tension to attain these gravity -defying moves, to keep our all-too-human flesh aloft with the refined application of muscular effort and mental focus.

So whenever you are performing bodyweight strength moves that involve the upper body, always remember to keep your body taut and your shoulders accordingly tight for the movement that you are executing, and you will be able to optimise your strength and power output, to make these moves as easy as they can ever be. 🙂

~ This post is written by Lionel Ng, part-time Personal Trainer & full-time Fitness Enthusiast. ~

Ego & Expectations

This is probably something that we face everyday in our lives, especially for members of the male populace: ego and the expectations of others.

It may be a throwback to our cavemen roots, where fear, intimidation, threat display and posturing are some of the most basic forms of social interaction. The caveman has to appear stronger, or at the very least exhibit physical strength that is on par with that of his average peers, to avoid the likelihood of being bullied or killed by others of his own kind.

Even today, the playground dynamics of our children represent a holdover of these ancient social mechanics, with group games domninated by the largest, strongest and most athletic individuals, whereas their weaker and slower counterparts are often shunned, bullied and mercilessly ostracised.

As our children grow up, these instincts stay with them, even to the workplace, where individual ability is always placed at a premium, and less capable people are usually subject to mockery, ridicule and social isolation.

Of course there are always people who remember what it is that makes us human, noble individuals who rise above their natural inclinations and embrace everyone, regardless of ability and character, with fair and equal treatment. But most of the rest of us just can’t shake off our primordial judgemental attitude all of the time.

Although it is right for us to condemn such prejudiced behaviour, we also have to understand and accept that this is a mindset that has been hardwired into our biological makeup, and which is probably here to stay, for as long as we exist as a race and as a species.

I suspect that most of these evaluative responses has to do with Nature’s own regulatory mechanisms. In Nature, only the fittest are meant to survive and perpetuate the species, so that the future generations will inherit the best physical traits for optimal biological performance in the ecosystem.

I am broaching something potentially contentious here, so I urge you to read on with the light of clear reason.

I suspect that we, much like communal predatory beasts like wolves, are meant to live in a strict hierarchical system, with the strongest and fittest lording it over their weaker and slower counterparts. This may be what Nature intended for us, although we have risen above it in some ways, by our unspoken social agreement born of our developed civility to protect the interests and welfare of our weaker brethren.

But it was not meant to be so in the wild, and it is not always just so even in our modern world. Some instincts are just too deeply-rooted, entwined with our very genetic makeup such that only constant suppression and management by means of our reason and emotion is often just barely enough to hold our biological bias at bay.

We are, and always have been, a paradox. We are forged with the instincts of malice and spite, along with the capacity for compassion and empathy. Perhaps the only carnivorous creatures in the wild that approach our levels of tolerance and accommodation of our physical lessers are the whales and dolphins, aside from some ants and insects.

I could go on and furnish you with further proof of what I’ve just said, but I’ll save it, cos for those of you who know this, you already believe in it. For those of you who don’t want to believe that there is innate evil within mankind (evil as we define it with our modern civilised moral viewpoint), your minds are already closed to whatever evidence that exists to support this proposition. 

But I have digressed far enough with the intention of showing you what I believe to be the biological basis of human ego and expectations. Let’s get back to examining how these things can affect you adversely in your everyday life, and how you can go about overcoming their negative influence. 

I am a fitness guy (you should already know that by now), and so I shall illustrate my points using examples drawn from the fitness world.

The combination of ego and expectations tends to have these 2 effects, which can be observed especially for the male population:

1. It stops you from doing what you can’t do, or what you can’t do well, and hence it will stop you from getting better at the things that you need to improve upon.

2. It makes you do things that you can barely manage, just so you can appear as strong as people expect you to be.

If all these still appear fuzzy to you, let me pitch you a couple of solid, real-life examples that I have observed far too many times for my comfort or liking:

1. Pull ups are a universal sign of strength and masculinity. I have seen many men shun the pull up bars in the public fitness corners just cos they don’t want to look wimpy in front of the ladies. It gets worse when you don’t even want to do them without anyone else watching… Come on mate, if you can’t stand watching yourself doing a simple exercise, your ego levels are practically through the roof. Either that, or you have really, really low self-esteem.

2. It is a common sight to see grown men bobbing up and down (like a vibrator, one of my Army sergeants used to say)performing what they think are full push ups at the public fitness corners. It’s a damn shame. You’ll catch these chaps doing the same shitty, half-assed push ups six years later. They have not benefited from the exercise which they are killing their joints to perform, because they just can’t bear the thought of going back on their knees, and doing push ups “like a girl” to build up the necessary foundational strength for the full push ups. You’ll see more men willing to perform incline push ups with their hands on an elevated object rather than knee push ups, even though the former is actually way easier, but just because the latter looks way too sissified in the perception of these wannabe macho fellas.

3. This is an extra point which stems from point number 2 above. I f***ing hate it when people attach gender labels to a goddamn exercise. Why are knee push ups known as girl push ups? F*** man, most grown men I see can’t even perform knee push ups in the proper form, and I have seen many girls who can do full push ups much better than the next dozen men. Give the ladies a break, and give the goddamn exercise a break. It’s an exercise, for f***’s sake, why do you have to assign a f***ing gender to it?! Men are all of unequal strength, and some women are stronger than most men, just like how some men are stronger than most women. Don’t let your petty goddamned ego get in the way of you performing an exercise, just because you think it is pussified. And seriously? F*** the bastards who are still perpetuating the idea of knee push ups as girly push ups, and putting their brothers off an exercise which is of immense strength- and muscle-building value and benefit. Hell, I do knee push ups at the public fitness corner. Now let’s see you call me a pussy for doing it. No, I’m not joking. Go on and do it. Even if you do, I will still keep on doing ‘dem push ups, cos my ego can handle it, honestly.

Woah, don’t get me started on this. I get pretty pissed off when people come up to me and tell me shit like incline pull ups are for girls. Fark. And of the guys who say this, not a single one of them has ever succeeded in accomplishing my challenge to them of doing 3 sets of 30 incline rows, chest to bar. Let me tell you something that may amaze you, ‘migo. Most of the really strong dudes? They may appear cold, brooding and aloof in public but I’m telling you, they are some of the most humble people you can meet. They just generally look cold and unfriendly when they work out, cos they’re focusing real hard on the real shit, unlike most of the wannabes who claim that they “work out”.

Why is there this general inverse correlation of ego levels to strength levels? Forget the geniuses and prodigies who are pricks, they are relatively few and far between. Most of the people who go really far work very hard, and this hard work is almost always progressive, meaning to say that these individuals are constantly challenging themselves with new and harder moves. So if they allowed their egos to get in the way, they’ll never progress and move on any further, cos they’ll be stuck doing the old stuff that they’re good at, while steering clear of new challenges. And that, my friend, is a surefire recipe for stagnation.

But most strong guys do sound like pricks. My friend accredited the following saying to Ido Portal, renowned movement artist and teacher: When you become good, you become an asshole.

I have always prided myself on the ability to be honest in my self-appraisal, and I think I’m not good enough to be an asshole, yet. But my training partner, Bruce, certainly is. He is the only guy you see in the neighbourhood performing planches and full range handstand pushups off an elevation, and all without any background in gymnastics. Everything he has he earned through pure, intelligent hard work.

This is one man I have huge respect for.

Bruce started off training in acrobatics later than me, when he was already 23 years old, or thereabouts. After we met Ido in person and got to know how he started his acrobatics training at the age of 25, I often joked to Bruce that he’s going to be the next Ido Portal. Or perhaps the first Bruce Dierl. I have no doubt that this remarkable young man and training partner of mine is destined for great things, and I have full and complete faith that he will carve a legacy for himself, as he progresses to ever-greater heights of physical achievement.

And incidentally, Bruce was the friend who told me that when you’re good, you become an asshole. Hahaha.

I have seen how he answers queries on strength and training from interested parties, and I have compared his responses to my own. His replies are often short and curt, almost rude, from an outsider’s point of view. He is terse and taciturn and doesn’t say alot to these “newbies” who’re genuinely interested and asking for advice. At first I thought he’s an asshole, but now I know better.

It’s not so much that being good at what he does gives him the right to be an asshole. Rather, I have come to realise that for most of the new fish, it is often pointless to discuss and explain things in exacting and exhaustive detail. I can go on at great length for hours, (perhaps even days) about physical training, but all of that knowledge and information isn’t really needed when you’re a beginner, a novice.

 

I realise now that when you give a prospective student too much information at the start, he will tend to lose focus on what he should be doing, and instead keeps on trying to do the harder stuff that he is as yet unprepared for. This is like how when an average dude knows about full push ups, he’ll keep on trying to do them, instead of easier variations (like knee push ups) that will actually serve him better during the initial stages of his training. I’d say eight or nine out of ten people I’ve met are this way. And this is a certain formula for long-term frustration, disappointment, and even injury.

Much like those venerable old martial arts movies, stories and legends of young enthusiasts seeking out hidden old masters to learn the secret arts and skills that will make them extremely powerful and nigh-on invincible, the old master will invariably instruct the eager young novice to start off by doing just a handful of repetitive drills for punishing lengths of time, without any further explanation or elaboration as to the function and purpose of the said drills.

And those who succeed in the end (and of course the movies and books we read are all success stories) are those who possess the focus and perseverance to endure the long and monotonous hours of gruelling foundation work, until such time as they are deemed fit to be brought on to the next level, where the master will then reveal the true secret of his art, which is usually not so much a secret as a distillation of the most basic essence of what the novice had been told to practise all along. The higher and sturdier the mountain is, the broader its base. The same fundamental principle applies to foundational training, upon which stunning apex skills can then be built.

The initial stage of foundational training is often as much a test of the mind and character as it is of the body. Traditional chinese martial arts place great emphasis on xin su, the principles of the heart. It is the quality that must be considered before a prospective student can become a true disciple. This quality is a collective mix of essential character attributes and innate perosnal qualities such as focus, perseverance, drive, humility, compassion, empathy, and honour. Chinese martial arts place a great premium on wu de, the ethics of the practitioners. The lethal skills were meant strictly for self-defence, and the defence of others who are unable to defend themselves, from forces of malice and injustice.

In other words, true martial artists killed and maimed only to save innocent lives.

This may all seem like very flowery and powdery philosophical nonsense, but I believe that acrobatics, just like martial arts, as a skill is as representative and expressive of the character as it is of bodily strength and athleticism. Great strength and skill is acquired in the process of training, and without the right mental and emotional attributes it is difficult to scale the pinnacle of acrobatic achievement.

My good friend Bruce is on the way to becoming a master in his own right, dispensing only the most basic and necessary instruction to aspiring young trainees. And only those who are truly worthy of his instruction will persevere and reach the point where things will start to get interesting.

If you have read up to this point, I consider it an achievement in and as of itself – most people nowadays simply don’t have the patience to read this many words.

I believe my friend, partner and colleague Jay Ding has written a post on how the modern man and woman are overly-obsessed with fast results. This unhealthy fixation on the speed of ahievement rather than progress is in fact highly detrimental to the development and acquisition of most skills and abilities, for most, if not all things require a hefty foundation if truly staggering heights are to be achieved. 

The Chinese have a saying: yu su ze bu da, meaning more haste, less speed. So learn to moderate your ego and manage your expectations, and you will find that physical training is in fact as much an exercise of your mind and character as it is of your body and strength. And when all of these are honed in concert, you will, in time, also become a master of your own art.

~ This post is written by Lionel Ng, part-time Personal Trainer & full-time Fitness Enthusiast. ~