Acing The IPPT

Foreword

This post is written in a surge of energy. This is something that I have hoped to address for quite some time, and it is something long-overdue. I feel that this article cannot wait to be posted, so please bear with the lack of pictures for now. I’ll be taking photos of my own training to better illustrate the stuff that I will be mentioning in the rest of this post.

Thanks for your patience and understanding!

And on to the real stuff…   

IPPT – short for Individual Physical Proficiency Test, is a term that conjures nightmares for some. Specifically, it is a terror to those who struggle to meet the passing standards, and those who are failing the cut dismally. The fact that IPPT is mandatory for all combat-fit servicemen in the army, as well as for all combat-fit and NS-liable men in Singapore, makes it a common fear that is shared by many.

In my days of National Service I was a platoon commander on the sunny island of Tekong, and one of my responsibilities as an instructor to the newly-enlisted recruits was to conduct training for the IPPT. Hence, I have developed some good practices that generate results for improving the type of fitness that is required for one to ace the IPPT, which I am going to share with you in the rest of this post.

First things first, before I launch into the details of how to train to ace the IPPT, I must say that to really be able to excel at it, to the point where the mandatory yearly tests will no longer feel like a hassle, and start feeling more like a paid workout session (there are monetary incentives for NSmen, to encourage the maintenance of individual fitness), you have to throw the mindset of merely wanting to pass, right out of the figurative window.

This is because there is the tendency for there to exist a correlation between the effort level that is put in with the aims towards which this effort is dedicated. If you’re looking only just to pass, chances are you’ll only be working so hard. But if you’re gunning for gold, odds are you’ll be busting your ass in training a whole lot more as compared to your compatriots who’re aiming to just scrape through on a mixture of minimal effort and a healthy dose of luck.

So if you’re reading this because you don’t want the IPPT to be a perennial worry at the back of your mind, I advise you to set your sights high, and aim to attain the gold standards. There’s always a margin of error for anything, and physical training, while being technical in nature, is not an exact science. Even ballistic missiles have their CEP (circular error probable). So if you’re aiming just to pass, there’s a very good chance that you may actually end up failing. But if you’re going for gold, the odds are high that even if you fail to meet the required standards, you will still end up getting a silver or a pass. In other words, buffer yourself against the prospect of failure, by working to achieve a much higher set of standards than the minimally accepted one.

Okay, that’s enough talk and foreplay.

Let us examine the aspects of fitness that is being tested in the IPPT, and the problems that most people are facing.

The 5 stations of the IPPT are:

1. Pull Up

2. Sit Up

3. Shuttle Run

4. Standing Broad Jump

5. 2.4km Run

In my time as a PC on Tekong I’ve had access to the statistics for the passing rate and standards achieved by my recruits in the IPPT, and the 3 main problem areas are the pull up, the standing broad jump, and the 2.4km run, in descending order as measured by the failure rate, and the persistence of the failure rate.

When the recruits are newly-enlisted there will be a significant number who are having issues with the 3 aforementioned stations. However, as time passes and the army training kicks in, the 2.4km run will be greatly-diminished in terms of it being a problem station. This is because the army physical training involves alot of running, for cardiovascular capacity is the cornerstone of military fitness. The recruits are doing runs every other day, sometimes even every single day, and so most will be more than able to cope with the standards that are required for the 2.4km run after 3 – 4 weeks of training in the army.

The standing broad jump will also see some improvement in terms of its passing rate, for all the running will have strengthened the leg muscles, and those recruits who used to fail the jump because of inadequate leg power will be better-equipped to pass the station. However, due to the higher element of technique that is required for the standing broad jump as compared to simple running, there will still exist a small handful of those who are unable to pass the station even at the end of BMT (Basic Military Training) – these are the trainees who are as-yet incapable of executing sufficient portions of the jumping technique in order to pass the station.

And now the pull up – this is easily the single greatest “killer” station, with up to hundreds of recruits failing it at the start of their BMT, and by the end of their time on Tekong, there will still be more than a handful who seem to find passing this dreaded station nigh-on impossible. This is probably because it requires a painful amount of exertion to be able to pull one’s full bodyweight by the strength of the arms and the back for the first time, and an equally painful amount of effort to build up the strength for multiple repetitions. So the less-motivated trainees will tend to slack off during pull up training, until it is far too late for them to improve enough to pass towards the end of their stay on Tekong.

By looking at the 3 stations of the IPPT that present most with the greatest problems, we can identify a few aspects of fitness from which most of the failures stem. For the pull up, it is the strength endurance in the arms and back. For the standing broad jump, the explosive power of the legs, and the technique of jumping. For the 2.4km run, it is the speed endurance that is the most sorely tested.

The meat of the training.

Now I’ll go into the programming of the type of training that will allow you to bust free of your weaknesses in the IPPT.

Firstly, for the pull up:

Zero Fighters

If you cannot even perform a single repetition of the pull up, go back to the inclined pull up. Perform 3 – 5 sets of inclined pull ups every single day, gripping the bar tight (imagine the bar is a wet sponge and you’re trying to squeeze it dry), and pulling up as high and smooth as you can, no jerking or excessive use of body momentum. Start off with as many repetitions as you can handle in the sets, gradually working your way up to the point where you can crank out 3 – 5 sets of 25 – 30 reps per set. Maintaining a 1 second isometric “squeeze” at the top of every pull will help you develop your strength more quickly.

Also incorporate some hanging work on the bar with your full bodyweight. Again, remember always to grip tight, and hang for as long as you can manage on the pull up bar. Do this after your inclined pull ups. If you drop, hop back on and hang again, for as many sets as is required, until you hit a total of 1 minute hang-time. Work your way up to the point where you can hang for 1 minute straight without dropping. As you grow stronger pull your shoulders in and keep them tight when you are hanging. This pulling in and “locking” of the shoulders is essential for safe and strong pulling.

You will know when you are strong enough to do a full pull up. Until then, focus on building up your strength and grip. 

One to Fiver

If you fall within this range, (6 is the minimum passing standard) or if you have just worked your way up to this range of pull up reps, here’s a guide for you: perform 3 – 5 sets of as many pull ups as you can every day. Grip tight, pull yourself up smoothly, and utilise the 1 second isometric pause at the top of every pull as mentioned earlier for the inclined row.

Continue to perform your hanging grip work after you have finished all of your reps. You may want to work your way up to 2 minutes (or longer), or hang off a towel to further strengthen and challenge your grip.

Gunning for Gold

If you’re already passing the pull up and aiming to hit 12 reps or more for the full 5 station points, you need to ramp up your strength endurance. Stick to 3 – 5 sets for most of your training sessions, but push yourself once in awhile with as many as 10 sets, or go for a single set of maximum repetitions. The former will add up to longer total time spent on the bar, and the latter will force you to stay on the bar for far longer at a single stretch. All this will dramatically improve your strength endurance and go towards making the 12 reps happen, and maybe even make them feel like a breeze.

Continue to perform your hanging grip work once in awhile. If you can do 5 minutes without coming off the bar, you pretty much have the grip of a vice, which will make pull ups feel about as easy as a stroll in the neighbourhood park, at least for the first 10 or 20 reps. Alternatively you can also work the hanging into your training sets. Hang for 10 – 20 seconds before commencing each pull up set, or end off each pull up set with half a minute of hanging, or hang for some time in between some of your reps, or even in between all of your reps.

Or, if you’re enough of a stud, you can do all of the aforementioned, plus throw in some isometric freezes at different points of your pull ups for some of the repetitions, and experiment with different pulling speeds. This will truly make you a master of the pull up, and you’ll walk towards the bar with a not-so-secret smile on your face during every IPPT.    

Training Programming

Of course, the ideal scenario is one in which you can perform a structured training session i.e. 3 – 5 work sets + hanging grip work every day, or every other day. If you are a recruit you can do this at night if you have admin time, or for those of you fanatics out there, you can wake up early to hit the bars, which was what I used to do. 

However, reality is often less than ideal. So if you don’t have enough time at a stretch for a dedicated training session, you can perform a set every time you get a break from school or work, or anytime you happen to pass by a pull up bar. This will keep you fresh because you have plenty of time during the day to recover before your next break and your next set, and you may find yourself accumulating quite a respectable number of total reps done throughout the day. 

Remember, pull up is strength-based, so if you feel excessively sore or fatigued from your school or work or training, do take a break, or have a rest day or two in between your training days. Keep yourself fresh, and the reps will keep on coming for sure. Push too hard and too fast, and you may end up overtraining and under-recovering, which will set back your progress, and may even put you at risk of sustaining training-related injuries. 

You can warm up for pull ups using inclined pull ups, or even by simulating the pulling motion by flexing and bending your arms. The idea is to warm up with a similar motion under a lighter workload, which will prep your muscles and joints and prevent nasty injuries from occuring. In my time on Tekong I have borne witness to shoulders ripped or dislocated on the pull up bar, so do take care of yourself. The bar is meant to build you up, not to break you down.

Cool down with some basic stretches. All that pulling can accumulate excessive muscular tension in your shoulders and back, which will hinder your progress in the long run, and inhibit your mobility. My personal favourite is one in which you interlace the fingers of your hands together, pulms facing the ground, and bring them overhead so that your palms end up facing the sky with straight arms. Once your hands are overhead, reach upwards, and stretch out the muscles around your armpit region, which have a tendency to become very tight from strength training.

Another good stretch post-pull ups involves grasping one hand with the other, and twisting your body towards the side opposite of the hand that is being gripped. Spread the muscles across the broad of your back outwards as you do so, and you should feel a nice stretch in your upper to mid-back.

Train hard, and train smart. The road to stardom, or rather the road to 12 or more pull ups, is longer than you hope, but definitely not as long as you fear.

And now for the standing broad jump:

The standing broad jump requires explosive leg power and sound technique.

Let us first examine how to train for the explosive leg power that is necessary for a good jump.

The Fundamentals

Your usual running isn’t going to help much, because your legs aren’t moving fast or explosive enough. You need to do sprints. My SBJ was a respectable 256cm when I was in Sec 1, and I would have hit the coveted 3m mark if not for a torn hamstring in Sec 2. Since then progress has been slow, but I still managed 281cm on the SBJ in my JC days. I was a school sprinter from Sec 1 to JC 2, and all the high-speed, explosive work that I did during my track training did my jumping ability a whole world of good.

The focus here is to build power, not just strength. No matter how strong your legs are, if they can’t move fast, you can’t jump far. I recommend 30m sprints, for 3 – 5 sets, every other day. Don’t do this everyday unless you’re a recovery machine. High intensity work burns up a heck of a lot of energy, and overdoing it past the point of recovery will only end up making you feel very sorry for yourself. And yes, when I say sprint, I mean sprint. Go all out as if there’s a tiger on your heels. Run as fast as you can. Speed is of paramount importance here.

Supplement the sprints with some actual jump work to use the power that you have developed in the specific way that is required of the standing broad jump. Jump for distance and height. Most people tend to exhibit a very flat trajectory in their jumps, which will not make them go very far. That’s why artillery cannons shelling the enemy from kilometres away need to have their barrels elevated at an angle, and that’s why good javelin throwers also cast their spears at the same angle.

The ideal angle at takeoff is about 25 – 30 degrees for the SBJ. Practice jumping up and forward, onto stable elevated platforms for multiple reps. I use these flat wooden tables at a local park for my practice. Stand some distance away, as far away as you can, and then leap up onto the target platform with the same arm swing and double-legged method as the standing broad jump. Do not do a run up, cos that’s a whole different kind of jumping that may not translate very well into improved SBJ performance.

You can do the aforementioned as often as you can, and focus more on the quality of the jumps, rather than the quantity of the jumps. A few good jumps is better than a dozen sloppy, halfhearted ones. You can do this throughout the day as you come across suitable training material. 10 – 12 jumps at a time will suffice, please don’t burn yourself out – remember, we’re training for explosive power here, not strength endurance. And please make sure the platform that you use is stable. The last thing I want is for some well-intentioned fella to break an arm or a leg with this training.

Supplementary Work

Some other stuff that works are tuck jumps and squat jumps. In the former, jump up and bring your knees to your chest, and not the other way round. I see too many people hunching and bending their body in all sorts of funny ways when they are doing their tuck jumps, in an effort to touch their knees to their chests. Touching your knees to your chest is not a requirement here, but keeping your body more or less upright and brining your knees up as far as they can go is.

For squat jumps, perform a full squat, and leap vertically upwards from the bottom of the squat position. As you land, cushion the impact by flexing and bending at the knees to return to the original full squat position, and then repeat the same motion.

For both the tuck jump and the squat jump, perform 2 – 3 sets of 10 – 12 reps in one training session. Minimise the time of contact between your feet and the ground in between all your reps. This places greater emphasis on reactive jumping, which will develop explosive power in the legs far more effectively than if you were to hop on the spot for a couple of times before launching into your next repetition. Remember, touch and go.

Training Programming

A SBJ training session can look like this:

Warm up with a light 2 – 3 minute jog.

Do 3 – 5 sets of 30m sprints.

Do 10 – 12 platform jumps.

Do 2 – 3 sets of 10 – 12 tuck jumps or squat jumps. Do not do 2 – 3 sets of both unless you are very strong, or very crazy.

Cool down by walking around and shaking off your legs, like how you would shake off your arms after a pull up set.

If you don’t have enough time to do all of the above in a single training session, do just the sprints, and save the jumps for when you have breaks during the day. Coffee break? 10 tuck jumps! Lunch break? Another 10 tuck jumps! Before you eat, of course. Unless the food sucked and you are wishing to puke it out.

Some final words on this: when jumping, especially for the tuck and the squat jumps, land lightly. I cannot possibly over-emphasise this. Most people I see land like dancing elephants, and the ground shakes. Literally. When you sprint, land lightly as well. Your footfalls should be barely audible, if not altogether silent. When your feet are landing loudly, it means that you are landing hard. If you are landing harder than you should repeatedly over sustained periods of time, your joints are going to pay the price. That’s why you get so many recruits with ankle and knee complaints.

Jump like a tiger, land like a feather. Pretty nifty saying, eh? You may not believe it, but I came up with it on my own.

Moving on to the 2.4km run:

I have a friend who is an avid marathon-runner, but he could not manage a consistent IPPT gold because of his 2.4km timing. This is because the 2.4km run requires speed endurance if you were to hit the sub-9:45 timing that is required for the gold standard. You need to run fast over a fairly long distance, so it may not suffice if you are used to running at a slower pace, even if it’s over a much longer distance.

The Facts

Let’s break it down:

2.4km, when done on a standard 400m running track, gives you 6 laps around the red road. To hit the gold timing comfortably, I suggest you give yourself a buffer time of 14 seconds, which means you need to be able to complete the entire run in 9 minutes and 30 seconds. This means that if you were to maintain a constant pace throughout the run, you need to be able to do 1 minute and 35 seconds per 400m lap. This is a pace that can be quite daunting to most people who have not undergone the specific training that is required to develop such speed endurance.

So how to train your speed endurance? For those of you who are in the army, no worries. The AGR (Ability Group Run) and the Speed Training sessions are an excellent combination for you to develop your cardiovascular capacity and your speed endurance. Put in your best effort during training, and I assure you that the 2.4km run will not pose a problem to you.

Training Programming

For those of us who have left the regimented training, I suggest the following mode of training, which I feel is the most effective and time-efficient:

You don’t have to run everyday, especially if you already have a solid foundation, and are looking just to maintain it.

For me, I get away with running only once a week most of the time. I alternate between longer distance runs (up to 5 or 6 kilometres) at a constant pace which is one that is as fast as I can manage throughout, and shorter distance runs (about 2 – 3km), in which I will either maintain a constant speed that is as fast as I can handle, or alternate between fast and slow intervals (about 150m jog, followed by 150m fast run, followed by 150m jog, and so on until the full distance has been covered).

Note that I wouldn’t recommend an all-out sprint during the fast portions of your interval runs – this will make you very tired very quickly, and unless you are an elite athlete in tip-top shape, you probably wouldn’t survive the experience, let alone be able to benefit from it. Instead, I suggest running at about 70 – 80% of your top speed – open up your strides and maintain a steady cadence that you can feel pushing you into the anaerobic threshold. This is what we call “striding” in track circles. By pushing the anaerobic threshold I refer to the feeling when you know you are incurring an oxygen debt, when your lungs can’t quite keep up with the intensity at which your body is being exerted. Push this threshold, but don’t go overboard, or you may very well just collapse and require resuscitation.

In my opinion, running 2 – 3 times a week is good enough. If you’re training for the 2.4km run, keep your running distance between 2 – 5km, and cycle the different types of run – go fast and constant at times to simulate the actual test, and go at alternating fast and slow intervals at other times to hit the speed endurance from all angles. You may want to go for a longer and slower run occasionally to break the monotony and work on the cardiovascular system in a different way. I recommend a minimum of 1 rest day in between your runs, because most of us have work or school which makes us more tired, and demands more recovery time.

Warm up for your runs by starting out at a slower pace, and picking up the speed only when you feel your circulation quicken in response to the heightened physical activity. Cool down by walking and doing deep breathing. You may want to stretch out the leg muscles as well after your training.

Mixing It Up

It is also a good idea to run on different surfaces and even different gradients. Parks are excellent places to run in, with natural terrain and slopes which will force you to work harder and become faster and stronger as a result. Running on uneven terrain makes you learn your footing and positioning, and strengthens your joints, making them more injury-proof. Don’t fall into the trap of exercise linearity, mix it up with different types of running to improve your all-round performance. Cycle between different types of work to keep things fresh, and to keep the progress coming.

You can supplement your running with some leg strengtheners. Some of my all-time favourites are bodyweight squats, one- or two-legged, walking front and rear lunges, and standing calf raises, one- or two-legged. These few exercises will build great strength in your leg muscles, and make running more of a breeze. For these exercises, you can do them after your runs (psychos will do them before and after their runs), or just on their own, in a session or throughout the day in single or multiple sets, depending on the availability of time and space.

For the leg strengtheners, I recommend 20 – 25 repetitions, for 2 – 3 sets on a light day and 3 – 5 sets on a heavy day. The resultant soreness will take time to dissipate, so it’s a good idea to keep a rest day in between your leg training, unless you have a fetish for the feeling that microtrauma to the muscles causes (don’t laugh, I have friends like that). Of course, for the one-legged variations of the aforementioned exercises, cut the reps by about half, unless you are that much of a stud. Sometimes it can be fun to blast your legs with a single high-rep set, e.g. one set of 100 bodyweight squats. This challenges and develops strength endurance in the legs, which is needed for the 2.4km run. But don’t overdo this, unless you are looking to turn your legs into piston-driven bionics, or unless you have built yourself up to the level where a few sets of 20 – 25 repetitions of leg work is no more strenuous than picking your nose.

Okay, and what of the sit up and the shuttle run?

Don’t worry, sit ups tend not to be an issue, except for a very few select individuals, who have either moved very little in their lives, or who suffer from some medical disorder. The most of the rest of us should be able to ace the sit up station without much dedicated training. I haven’t done a single sit up in years, except when I was forced to (and man did I hate it), and still I can easily break 50 reps in the 1 minute time frame given during the test. Your abs should already be getting a good workout everytime you run or do your pull ups (where they tense to keep your body from swinging), and for most of us I don’t think there is a very real need to be doing endless sit ups to prep for the IPPT, unless you are specifically gunning for the sit up record, which I think stands at about 80-odd a minute.

As for the shuttle run, the sprinting that you should be doing for your SBJ will cover the speed that you need. For the turning and the coordination, just practise the actual thing now and then, and you should be more than fine for this particular station.

My Way

Let me end off by sharing with you my own training routine with regards to the IPPT:

Monday

About 30 pull ups in total, split among 3 to 5 sets.

2 – 3km run, fast and constant pace, or intervals.  

Tuesday

About 30 pull ups in total, split among 3 to 5 sets.  

Wednesday

About 30 pull ups in total, split among 3 to 5 sets.  

Thursday

About 30 pull ups in total, split among 3 to 5 sets.  

Friday

About 30 pull ups in total, split among 3 to 5 sets. 

5 – 6km run, fast and constant pace. 

Saturday

About 30 pull ups in total, split among 3 to 5 sets.  

Sunday

About 30 pull ups in total, split among 3 to 5 sets. 

Of course, I train other things as well, which carries over to my IPPT performance to some extent. Those of you who know me or have seen me will know that my pull ups will come at the end of a front lever set, and I’ll be doing stuff like handstands and tuck planches as well. I rarely hit my legs nowadays outside of my 1 – 2 runs a week; I don’t feel as if they need that much work for what I want to achieve. Sometimes I’ll throw in some squats and lunges and calf raises and jumps, but that’s pretty much about it.

I know this has been a long post, but I hope to cover as much as I can on so crucial a topic. For those of you out there who are not so sure how exactly to go about training for your IPPT on your own, this can be a starting point for you. Train hard, train smart, and above all, train safe.

All the best for your IPPT!

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

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China Acrobatic Training (2)

Today, I’d like to share with you a glimpse into the Chinese methods of strength and weights training, as described to me and practised 40-odd years ago by my Fujian mentor, Ling Qing Hu.

My mentor told me that he used to be a scrawny boy, and retained his slight build and lanky frame even into his early 20s. Then, some people in the trade pissed him off by mocking his physqiue and claiming that he’ll never be able to grow much bigger or stronger.

And thus the determined young acrobat embarked on a course to prove his doubters wrong.

When describing the strength and weights training that he employed (translated, of course):

“I used to train intensively every night, a strength and weightlifting session that lasted for about 1 – 2 hours. I’d start off with a single set of 200 shoulder presses with a 60-kilo barbell, and go on to another set of 200 shoulder presses with the same weight, this time pressing the barbell from behind the neck. Then I’d hit a set of 200 bench presses, same weight used as in the shoulder presses. After that I’d perform a set of 200 biceps curl, this time dropping the weight by half to about 30 kilos on a barbell. And then I’d stop the weights and finish off with a single set of 200 parallel bar dips.

I did this every night, sometimes with a few other training partners. One of us would work the weights or the parallel bars while the rest of us rested in between our sets. So it was like a rotational system, the barbell and the parallel bars were never free, and we rested until the previous guy came off the weights or the bar, whereupon one of us would pick up where we left off. It was extremely intense, the muscles being worked will feel hot and swollen after the session.

It was an extremely effective routine. I went from a skinny 50-odd kilos to about 80 kilos in a few short years, and my muscular development was such that my old friends and colleagues who had not seen me for some time could not recognise me from the back, and were shocked by my newly-acquired strength and muscular build.”

Oh and by the way, my mentor is about 165cm in height.

I would have been skeptical, if not for the formidable forearm development, the broad and well-defined muscles of the chest, and the very-visible overhang of the latissimus dorsi that my mentor still exhibits. And this, at an age of 64 years, and after having discontinued any structured physical training for about 20-odd years.

I used to laugh when my mentor recounted the hot summer days of his hometown, when he would be afflicted by rashes in the underarm region due to the sweat-slicked, abrasive contact that the inside of his upper arms made with the top of his massive lats everytime he moved his arms close to his body. The old man used to grumble good-naturedly that even something as innocuous as the natural swinging motion the arms made when he walked caused him much irritation, and on several occasions he recalled how he could never keep his arms down by his side due to his oversized lats.

The sheer number of repetitions that my mentor used to perform daily in the weighted lifts and the parallel bar dips, and for a single set per exercise, is a method that I have never heard of or seen outside of the old-time strongmen material that I’ve come across in recent years. But perhaps that shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, seeing as how most recreational strength trainees and bodybuilders nowadays tend to stick to the glitzy workouts detailed in the shiny pages of glossy muscle mags.

Most of these “sleeve-busting” or “power-packed” workouts prescribe 3 – 5 sets of 8 – 15 reps per exercise. And actually they would have been more effective, if more people out there are less egoistic and more hardworking in the gym. 5 sets of 15 on an exercise actually gives you a grand total of 75 reps, which is a pretty decent number that when performed religiously every day, or even every other day, could potentially jack you up beyond recognition, and make you a walking badass.

But what is actually going on out there most of the time is that despite there being alot of guys claiming that they want it (“it” being bigger guns, or bigger chests, or bigger something), most of these dudes just don’t want this “it” bad enough. They go and cheat themselves and just curl or press some half-assed weights halfheartedly, or try and lift too heavy too fast and end up getting nothing for themselves save a hefty truckload of frustration.

People ask me how to get better at something. I get a bit irritated. But I calm myself down, and tell myself that everyone’s been through that stage: when we are looking for a shortcut cos we feel lazy about doing the work.

But the people that made it? They’re the ones who have passed through that phase, and realised that there is no quick or easy way out, and that everything is actually pretty simple, although painfully so. The rest of the poor chaps who’re still runnin’ around in circles out there are the ones who’re still trying to delude themselves into thinking that there is some magic formula that’s gonna get them jacked without the need to break a sweat.  

How to get better at something? Simple. Practice more. Simple? Yes. Easy? No.

While it is a straight road to success, it’s a bleedin’ long road, and sometimes you get so shot up trying to get to the end of it all that you find yourself only able to crawl and drag yourself forward a few pitiful inches with every titanic burst of resolve and exertion. Hey, no one said that success was easy. Hell, if it were, there’ll be alot more happy people and alot less jealousy and self-pity to go around.

Talent is greatly overrated. And hard work is greatly underrated.

Find me the best at something, anything, who got there by doing nothing, and I’ll give it to him that he’s plenty talented. But odds are the best got there by working harder at what they do than everyone else who’s also doing the same thing.

My Fujian mentor liked to say “gong dao zi ran cheng”, which is Mandarin for “work begets results”. He used this phrase whenever he was referring to those accomplished handbalancers who could do spectacular feats, such as hopping up a flight of stairs on a one-arm handstand, on a cane. Without long years of dedicated effort, he said, no one can have a hope of doing such amazing things.

This is something that the old-timers understood. They lifted iron for hours on end, practising a single lift for years and years before being able to record those feats that live on today as legend. Arthur Saxon, the Iron Master, holder for the world record of the two-hands anyhow, used to say that true strength is that which can be used repeatedly for sustained periods of time, and logic follows that such strength can only be attained by repeated exertion over equally sustained periods of rime.

And indeed, when my Fujian mentor described how the young handbalancing trainees in the acrobatic troupe used to perform 100 full-range handstand pushups in 5 sets of 20 repetitions on a wooden bench, resting in between sets in the handstand position, and how handstand drills lasted for hours with the trainee transitioning between a host of different positions for 10 – 20 repetitions each, all the while maintaining the handstand, I understood why the Chinese acrobats are the best at what they do. In the West such volume and such intensity would be considered madness.

But there is a method in the madness. Practice makes perfect. And the methodical madness of Chinese acrobatic training is just plain, intelligent hard work that makes those who have the heart and the nerve to go through it the best that they can ever be.

So are you practising hard enough for what you want to achieve in your life, be it lifting iron, balancing on your hands, or academic and work success?

Chances are, not nearly hard enough.

So snap out of all the self-deluding thoughts and excuses that are in your way, and start running a winning race on the road to your success. 🙂

Intelligent and relentless hard work – the universal equation for success. Do you have what it takes?

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

China Acrobatic Training (1)

We’ve all seen it in one way or another: small children, girls and boys alike, being put through their paces by stern-faced coaches who are frequently armed with sticks or canes, pushing the bodies of their young charges to the absolute limit in human performance.

This is the image of China acrobatic/gymnastics training, as it is commonly portrayed in the mainstream and online media.

I have the distinct honour and pleasure of knowing in person one Ling Qing Hu, ex-acrobat and acrobatic trainer from the renowned Fujian Acrobatic Troupe. It was this 64 year-old man who brought my skills and training (and those of my training partner Bruce) to a whole new level, despite his refrain from direct coaching for personal reasons. Over the course of two years he shared with us rather more of his experiences as a professional acrobat and acrobatic trainer, along with expositions of certain Chinese training principles, philosophy and methodology.

While it is obvious that most of us out there aren’t aiming to become professional sportsmen or achieving such dizzying heights in our physical performance, I believe that we can all take a page or two from a system that has produced some of the world’s best at what they do, depsite facing strong criticisms and outright condemnations for their methods.

Before I met my Fujian mentor I was horrified by videos and photos that I saw of young Chinese children being made to go through what looks pretty much like pure physical torture in state and provincial training facilities. However, I guess all these stuff are pretty much a one-sided story, and sometimes, we learn more by listening to the other side of the tale.

My mentor recounts how, as a trainer, he used to go to schools to pick out prospective trainees for his troupe. They will conduct their selection on children between the ages of 8 – 12, which they believe is the optimal starting age for full-time professional acrobatic training.

They will conduct a series of tests, beginning with a physical examination of the candidates. Height, weight and bodily proportions are taken into account, as can be expected. One interesting detail is that the pleasantness of the face and the arrangement and appearance of the facial features will be considered. This is because the face and the facial features are the most prominent expression of a person’s bone structure, and apparently a correlation can be drawn between the structure of the face and the structure of the rest of the body.

Another important consideration is mobility, for acrobatic training will prove far more painful and difficult for those with less than average tension-flexibility. One other aspect that must be examined is the construction and alignment of the elbow joints – apparently elbow joints that form a perfect line when straightened is not desired, for they are difficult to maintain in a locked-out position for extended periods of time as in a handstand performance. Elbow joints that are excessively hyperextended when straightened are also passed on, for these result in less-than-optimal strength and load-bearing properties.

The “perfect” type of elbow joint, especially for handbalancing work, is supposedly one that is slightly kinked when fully-straightened. This will facilitate the holding of a locked-out position for extended periods of time and bestow great strength and enormous load-bearing capacity.

After the physical examination is complete those who pass through the initial screening will be subject to further tests. One of the tests that was described to me involves the subject climbing to the top of a tall step-ladder, and then jumping off from said ladder, which I was given the impression of being about 3 metres in height.

An alternative to this test is to throw a child up in the air to about the same height as the ladder without prior warning, and then catching the child as he/she is falling back down to the ground. This test and its equivalent are meant for the trainers to gauge the courage and daring of their subjects, especially their height-confidence. This is because acrobats have to work with heights a great deal, and acrophobia will be a great impediment to such training.

Those who succeed in the battery of tests will be taken to the circus school for a trial period. During the first month of the training the trainees are confined to the school compound, and family visits are strictly forbidden. Any parents who visit the school will have to take their children back, and they will be considered as rejects by the school.

My mentor tells me that for the first one or two weeks the children tend to be miserable, because they have never been exposed to such a regimented environment and such intense physical training. But he adds that by the end of the first month, the ones who have adapted successfully and exhibit potential in the acrobatic arts, and who are performing well in the training will be happy with their stay. When parental visits are allowed after the first month, and the choice is offered for those who have made it thus far to quit, usually none of the children will want to drop out of the training programme.

The training that we see being imposed on young aspiring Chinese gymnasts and acrobats appear inhumane and brutal, but there is actually a well-structured system in place, designed using a very scientific and technical approach. Great emphasis is placed on the handstand, which is the foundation of most gymnastics/acrobatic skills. Wall handstand holds of up to 10 minutes are developed and performed daily before breakfast by the trainees, with those specialising in the position doing 20 – 30 minute holds.

Mobility, which refers to the flexibility that can be achieved without any external aid, is developed as a cornerstone of the acrobatic arts. The knees are kept straight and locked and the feet pulled back instead of pointed during stretching, which keep the legs tensed instead of relaxed. Stretching under tension will pack every degree in the acquired range of motion with the capacity for strength exertion, as opposed to the type of loose flexibility that is developed by relaxed stretching.

Tumbling is another important component of the acrobatic foundation that is trained extensively. The bodily control and coordination that is developed by handstand training and tumbling, coupled with the mobility that is acquired through a structured stretching regime, equips the young aspirants with the fundamentals that will serve to propel them to great heights in their future specialisations.

In the next article of this series, I shall share with you the Chinese way of strength and weights training, which differs enormously from the modern-day concepts of recreational bodybuilding and strength training. Stay tuned!

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

Bar Community SG

090612 marked the long-awaited gathering of the bar and bodyweight training community here in Singapore, inspired by the videos of our counterparts all around the world.

The freestyle, free-and-easy event was held at the SUTD Dover campus, and the turnout was good. There was sharing all around on training tips, knowledge and experiences, and firm friendships were forged in the crucible of a common love for physical culture.

It was heartening to see and be around so many like-minded individuals, bonded in our passion for bodyweight training.

It was especially uplifting to see a number of younger people, who are following in the trail of those who have blazed the path before them, while leaving behind significant marks of their own.

There is huge potential to be tapped in the Singapore bodyweight and bar training circles, and I have little doubt that the Bar Community SG will soon leave a very notable imprint on the global street workout scene.

Thanks for all those who came down and shared their knowledge, experience and tips, and who offered their friendships so readily.

Special thanks to Michael Ong of SUTD Fitness and DIY Gym for helping to organise and host the event, as well as giving us demonstrations of the use and manufacture of some homemade exercise equipment.

It is my fondest hope for the bodyweight and bar training culture here to continue to grow and blossom, drawing more bright sparks to the fledgling flame of the Singapore street workout community.

Keep the good work coming, and spread the word far and wide: Bar Community SG – it’s all about keeping fit, getting stronger, and having one hell of a good time while doing it. 🙂 

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

The Psychology Of Injury

I’ve written a previous post on active recovery and active healing for sports injuries, but this one is going to be slightly different.

Today, we’ll be examining what goes on in the mind of an athlete when injury hits.

Paul Wade wrote a section that covers, among other things, the psychology of getting injured in his superb book Convict Conditioning 2, which echoes my own experiences after 8 years of athletic training.

I’ve been a school track athlete for 6 years, and I used to do the 400m and the javelin. An odd combination to most, but I’ve always been a jack of all trades when it comes to athletics. I can do most sports relatively well, but I’ve never managed to really excel at any of them. Perhaps it’s cos I’ve never really fallen in love with any sport in particular, until now of course.

Although I’ve never mounted the podium in my days as a school athlete, I’ve had my fair share of experiences from all the training that I’ve gone through. 

By experiences I mean injuries, of course.

I’ve torn my left hamstring, and picked up a wide assortment of other strains and sprains that are almost inevitable for an athlete.

So what goes through the mind of an athlete when he’s struck by a particularly debilitating injury?

I’d say it’s a whole cocktail of negative emotions, which can be collectively described as depression.

There’ll be waves of sadness when you find yourself unable to perform movements that you take for granted all the time.

There’ll be anger that comes from frustration, when the injury isn’t healing nearly as quickly or as well as you might desire.

There’ll be periods of time when you may simply space out, as your mind attempts to take a break from the potent soup of negativity that’s been churning in your skull all day long.

Sometimes you may be distracted by things, maybe when you are watching TV or playing your favourite computer game. But as soon as the blissful hours are over, you’ll probably be moping over your injury again.

So how should one deal with the psychology of injury?

First things first, you need to kick-start the rational part of your brain.

Successful people are often the ones who can compartmentalise their emotions, and separate their decision-making process from emotional influences. So we can all take a page from their book when we are fighting our psychological battles against our injuries.

Identify your negative emotions and isolate them. I know I know, easier said then done, right? That’s why we need to supply the logical and rational parts of your brain with more ammunition so that they can do their work.

You need to know that in alot of ways, your rate of recovery and the quality of your recovery is dependent upon your mood.

Check this out:

“A positive attitude releases serotonin, a neurotransmitter that aids relaxation while boosting energy levels; perfect recovery fuel. Positivity stimulates the immune system and releases beta-endorphins which provide pain relief. Recent research even indicates that a good mood can increase circulating human growth hormone — one of the most powerful anabolic healing agents in the body.

There is a very real biology of faith. Tap into it!”

That’s from Convict Conditioning 2, in case you were wondering. I think Paul Wade sums it up pretty good. Faith that you will recover from your injury can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the flip side, if you don’t believe that you’ll ever mend, chances are that you won’t.

The mind is an extremely powerful organ in terms of its influence on our actions. Afte all, every conscious action is a result of conscious thought. Let me show you an example:

If you are convinced that there’s no chance that you’re going to pass the upcoming exams, you’ll probably just give up studying, slack off, and end up flunking spectacularly at the end of the day.

On the other hand, if you’re certain that there’s a chance for you to ace the same exams, odds are you’ll work hard for it, and you’ll probably pass with flying colours.

So you see, thinking that things aren’t going to work out will never help, cos it shuts down all positive action. Similarly, if you have faith in a good outcome, you’ll probably conduct yourself in such a way as to facilitate the coming of the bright future that you foresee. So I guess this is where the term “self-fulfilling prophecy” comes from.

Before you do anything else, set your mind right. Straighten out your thinking, and know that the depressed feeling and all of that negativity is a natural by-product of you being injured. But also know that they won’t help you recover in any way, so stay happy and positive, and be optimistic about your chances of recovery. At the very least, do your very best to maintain a good mood and high spirits, it’ll do your healing process (both mental and physical) a whole world of good.

Getting injured is also a part of an athlete’s learning process. There is always something to be learnt from an injury.

As soon as you get injured, you need to stop whatever it is that you’re doing. Don’t be gung-ho and try and complete the set, if you’re in the middle of one. Stop. And start thinking.

Most of the time, aside from freak accidents (which demonstrate the unpredictability of life, and fate), training-related injuries are a result of some strength or structural imbalance, or poor technique, or excessive fatigue levels. 

Strength or structural imbalances in the body often cause either acute or chronic injury on the stronger side, or the side that ends up carrying significantly more of the load during a movement or an exercise. This is because the “better” side overcompensates while the weaker half slacks off. 

Poor technique can end up hurting you as well. Some common problems are overarching of the lower back when carrying heavy weights, and slamming your feet into the ground when running or jumping. 

When you’re worn out but persist in your exercise routine, injuries can occur as fatigued muscles give out under mechanical stress; a lapse in your concentration can also result in disastrous consequences.

 

Identify the cause of your injury, and if it is not a random event or a freak accident, then it’s time to review the way you work. Imbalances need to be ironed out, poor form and technique must be corrected, and your workload must be moderated when you are reaching dangerous levels of fatigue either mentally or physically, or both.

Working out the cause of your injury is the first step to becoming better at what you do, assuming that the injury isn’t permanent, or crippling. When you have rectified the problem that your injury has uncovered for you, you’ll be able to take your game to a whole new level.

So in that sense, an injury can in fact be a blessing in disguise. Not only can it potentially help you solve problems that may have gone unnoticed previously, and improving your athletic performance as a result, getting an acute but non-crippling injury early on could also save you from graver calamities in the future, when you are working with much greater loads and mechanical stresses, all of which can cause damage on a scale that is far more serious than what you are currently suffering from.

In the aftermath of your injury, try to keep yourself physically active, as much as you can safely manage. Moving around will keep your mind and spirit preoccupied, and make you feel loads better as compared to just lying around on the bed or the couch. If your injury is keeping you immobile, do your best to keep yourself mentally active, by reading your favourite book, surfing the net, talking to people, or even playing a simple game of chess with a friend or a family member.

Take your time to work your way back to strength and health. Don’t rush, but let yourself feel excited about every bit of progress that you make. Enjoy the journey back to reaching your original capacity. Sometimes, we get so obsessed with our training (for those of us nutcases) that we neglect other important parts of our life. Don’t let your training consume you. You have a whole life to live and a huge array of other stuff that are worth exploring. So an injury could be a timely reminder for those of us who are losing ourselves in what we love to do, which can be a bad thing.

Find a few hobbies, and your life will feel much more vibrant. I like to read and write and doodle and take pictures with my newly-acquired camera (actually a hand-me-down from my sister hehe), and these are the things that balance out my physical training. Most things in excess become poison, but things in balance become pleasant and harmonious.

So that’s all from me on this topic, just know that everyone falls now and then, just keep your head up, and keep going, and you will soon see the light. 🙂

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