Thursday, July 27, 2017

Quit Playing Games with My Heart

Have you seen this chart, or have you heard about the topic it describes?

(Scroll to the very bottom of the post for TL;DR if you like!)

From "On Combat", as rendered by Not for commercial use.
In brief, as I have heard it taught and as this chart explains, the higher your heart rate, the worse your physical performance. This idea has implications for anyone in a physical confrontation, where an increased heart rate seems to mean an inability to perform self defense actions.

When I first encountered this concept, it did not make sense to me. In my teens I was a high school cross country and track runner, and I frequently elevated my heart rate over 200 bpm. I did not encounter these symptoms. In my twenties and thirties I played men's league ice hockey and managed to perform complex motor skills such as skating, puck handling, and shooting, all while my heart was racing. 

Now, encountering this chart and its ideas as a martial artist, I'm learning that I should be experiencing tunnel vision and racing to the bathroom when my heart rate is high. Could there be more to this phenomenon?

The chart appears in On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace by Lt. Col. David Grossman and Loren Christensen, published in 2004, but it derives from a 1997 article Grossman wrote with Bruce K. Siddle titled Psychological Effects of Combat, for the Academic Press Encyclopedia of Violence, Peace, and Conflict. 

In On Combat, the authors write:

"There is a zone that exists, generally between 115 and 145 beats per minute (bpm), where you are at your optimal survival and combat performance level... Starting at about 115 bpm, your fine-motor skills begin to deteriorate."

The authors caveat these statements:

"We should be cautious about fixing specific heart rate numbers (or any other precise measures of physiological arousal) on Condition Yellow, Red, or Black. The impact of these Conditions can vary greatly depending upon training, physical fitness, and other factors. Also, it must be understood that these heart rates apply only to survival stress or fear induced heart rate increases. You can so a set of wind sprints and get your hear rate to 200 bpm, but the effect of this exercise induced heart rate increase will not be the same as when fear or survival stress causes the increase." (emphasis added)

You can download a .pdf version of the chart with similar caveats added to the bottom.

Apparently my earlier examples involved exercise without survival stress or fear, so I did not experience the negative effects inherent in the chart. But what is the source of these statements?

The authors state later in the book: 

"The linking of specific heart rate with task performance was pioneered by Bruce K. Siddle, author of the excellent book Sharpening the Warrior's Edge, and one of the great pioneers in the field of 'Warrior Science (TM).'"

I happen to be reading Siddle's book now. On pages 48-49 he writes:

"Levitt and Gutin (1971) studied the performance of a five-choice reaction time task and found that the ideal resting heart rate performance is at the rate of 115 heart beats per minute... After the heart rate increased above 115 bpm, the subject's performance began to deteriorate, with the worst performance at 175 bpm. 

Similarly, Levitt (1972) examined the affects (sic) of various stress levels induced by exercise, on tasks varying information-processing demands... He found a clear Inverted-U effect, with optimal performance at the heart rate of 115 to 145 bpm. His students' performances were clearly less effective at heart beats of 80 and 175 bpm."

Siddle repeats these findings using different wording on page 79.

I find three flaws with the heart rate theory at this point.

First, as far as I can tell, Siddle did no research on his own, as he has no training or expertise in this area. Despite this problem, Grossman and Christensen refer to "Bruce Siddle's research" as if Siddle conducted original work. Siddle's "research" consists of citing two papers by Levitt, one of which had a co-author, Gutin. That's it. Siddle built his whole theory around two studies, and Grossman and Christensen then built then theory on top of Siddle.

Second, Grossman and Christensen's caveats noted "these heart rates apply only to survival stress or fear induced heart rate increases." I believe they added these caveats to address criticism such as those I listed earlier. However, the caveats are inconsistent with the research Siddle cites to support his heart rate theory.  Levitt's 1972 research involved subjects on treadmills, not fighters in stressful situations. According to the caveats, this exercise-induced heart rate elevation should not have caused degraded performance. However, Levitt's research did cause degraded performance. Which is it?

Third, more recent research shows that conclusions by Siddle, Grossman,Christensen are no longer tenable. For example, a 2007 paper by police officer Kathleen Vonk titled Police Performance Under Stress (pdf) stated:

"Although the Inverted-U theory is well-known within the police training arena, many essential components have unfortunately been omitted or forgotten over the years. Siddle included these components in his book Sharpening the Warrior’s Edge, however much of the information has been left behind. For example, even in basic psychology text books both task complexity characteristics and personality characteristics are mentioned as affecting one’s performance, relating these characteristics to an individualized Inverted-U. Rarely, if ever, are these mitigating factors even mentioned in defensive tactics programs...

Since human beings are so different and complex, attempting to categorize or generalize an optimal performance zone to one specific heart rate range would be virtually impossible. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, the police profession may be better off looking to the athletic profession in terms of improving physical and mental skills under elevated stress levels." (emphasis added)

Vonk (who has a BS in exercise science) then describes the results of six years of research where her consulting firm collected heart rate data of police officers in a variety of situations, from training to field operations. I recommend reading her paper to better understand her suggested approach, one that abandons heart rates as factors causing stress responses.

My take-away from investigating the Siddle-Grossman-Christensen heart rate theory is that you cannot make any predictions about individual performance based on heart beats per minute. Martial arts instructors should be very careful how they approach this topic with students.

Unfortunately, we cannot seem to excise this theory from popular or martial culture. For example, consider this 2013 Art of Manliness article: Managing Stress Arousal for Optimal Performance: A Guide to the Warrior Color Code. The authors of that article are also confused about Jeff Cooper's color codes, but that's a topic for another post!

If you would like to read a lengthy criticism of the heart rate theory and chart, see this blog post by police officer and trainer W. Hock Hochheim titled Death to the Heart Rate Chart. Stu Marshall, an anaesthetist (a doctor that administers anaesthesia) calls Siddle's work an urban myth

TL;DR: There is little to no science behind the theory that increased heart rates degrade performance. Multiple other factors appear to be responsible, i.e., read Vonk's paper.

What do you think of the heart rate theory? Is it bogus, benign, or beneficial? Let me know here or respond to me on Twitter!

Stay informed of new blog posts by following me on Twitter @rejoiningthetao.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Five Exercises to Relieve Martial Arts Wrist and Finger Pain

Do sore wrists and fingers interfere with your martial arts training?

I stopped training martial arts training in 2001 after I broke my wrist in American Kenpo class. I didn't know I had broken it until several weeks later, when a doctor took an X-ray and saw the wrist was healing. I had "protected" it using the sort of wrist brace you use for carpal tunnel syndrome. The doctor said "that's going to hurt again in 10 or 15 years."

Here we are in 2017, and I don't want this old injury to hold me back! My family also has a history of developing arthritis in the fingers, so I am doing what I can to avoid that situation as well.

Earlier this year I felt wrist pain when doing Krav Maga striking drills, and finger pain doing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I decided to fight back with a multi-pronged approach. Let me share the drills I do to relieve martial arts wrist and finger pain!

1. Wrist strength. I was inspired by my StrongFirst training to focus first on wrist strength. When the muscles are weak, all that the body has left are the joints. Joints aren't meant to carry the loads intended for the muscles, so joint pain can be a sign that muscles needed to be strengthened.

To address the likelihood that the muscles supporting my wrist were weak, I bought a Sportneer Wrist and Strength Exerciser. The first two images below show how I position my arm to flex my wrist upwards, while the next two show how to flex downwards. It's important to work both directions under load. I do 10 contraction or extension reps per set, with 2 or 3 sets each day.

To work side-to-side motion, I use a light weight (5 pounds or less) and rotate the wrist back and forth in the other plane of motion.

2. Grip strength. I felt pain in the pinkie fingers after rolling in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, so I took the strength first approach to deal with that problem too. I'm using two devices, a Kootek Hand Grip Strengthener and a Gripmaster Hand Exerciser. I like the Kootek gripper because it is adjustable. The Gripmaster is only 5 lbs per finger, so I need to buy a new unit to increase the tension. However, I like the Gripmaster because I can isolate weak fingers, such as my pinkie. 

Like the wrist drills, it's important to do "opening" drills, not just "closing" drills. I plan to add some finger expansion exercises to my routine using rubber bands. This will balance the closing strength that I am building.

I do 10 contraction or extension reps per set, with 2 or 3 sets each day. 

3. Wrist protection. I still use wrist wraps when striking, as I described last year. I wear them 9 out of every 10 workouts or so. When I am striking but not wearing wraps, I pay extra attention to wrist position when making contact with the pads. I recommend this video by Shane Fazen with his tips for hitting the bag and avoiding wrist pain.

4. Wrist stretching. Students in today's Krav Maga Foundations seminar probably saw me sitting in a squat when drills were being introduced, holding my hands together in one of the two postures shown below. These are my go-to stretches. There are also a ton of great stretches in this Global Bodyweight Training video. I do these stretches whenever I think of them, throughout they day. 

I also do some wrist twirling sequences, forwards and backwards, that I remember from Wing Chun class. 

5. Kali drills. I need strong wrists and fingers for more than Krav striking or BJJ grips. Kali is both a driver and a solution. I use a single rattan stick in each hand. My main wrist drill involves rotating stick circles forwards and backwards, while keeping a fairly tight grip on the sticks. I am not simply touching my index finger to my thumb and twirling the stick in that space. I try to keep a full grip and rotate forwards and backwards. My right side (being my dominant hand) is much better than my left, but I'm making progress. 

I recommend two videos for Kali drills. The first is more warm-up-oriented and features Shawn Kitzman. Start with Shawn's drills, then add examples such as these by Paul Ingram. Start slow! If you try to twirl as fast as Paul, you will hurt yourself.

Bonus 1. If there is one lesson I learned through months of physical training (PT) for my shoulder, it is to avoid exercising through pain. However, as you develop strength and flexibility, you can add an exercise that works the wrists: the Ground Force Method (GFM) Ground Force Exploration (GFE) sequence. Andrea U-Shi Chang taught me the GFE last year. I use this series as a BJJ warm-up because it takes place on the ground, and it incorporates strength and flexibility motions.

Bonus 2. My second bonus is simple: experiment with different finger and hand techniques when doing push-ups. For years, traditional flat-palm push-ups were tough for me, because of wrist pain. By default I did knuckle push-ups. Recently I've tried adding fingertip push-ups, which I learned from Annika Kahn from Jungshin Fitness

Bonus 3. Finally, especially on the ground, protect your fingers. At BJJ class the other night, one of the instructors recommended using a closed fist when making contact with the mat. You should also be careful when sweeping, because you can end up with a wrist injury if you don't think of how it might move.

What sorts of exercises do you do to relieve wrist and finger pain?

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Saturday, July 8, 2017

Sportification of Martial Arts

I'm reading Kendo: Culture of the Sword by Alexander C. Bennett. I started reading it to better understand the history of Kendo, which I've mentioned a bit here. As you might imagine, Kendo started as a battlefield practice. It was one manifestation of the combat art employed by sword-wielding Japanese warriors.

Over time, as the leaders of Japan sought to reduce bloodshed, sword combat became less common. Swords were used in warfare, but as Japan became more peaceful, the numbers of "sword battle veterans" diminished. Various parties sough to continue to infuse the spirit of sword fighting in certain elements of the citizenry, leading to the development of Kendo and its sport elements.

I'm currently reading the part of the book that deals with the re-militarization of Kendo, due to the wars Japan fought in the first half of the twentieth century. This is a fascinating phenomenon which I have not encountered (yet) with other martial arts. Following World War II, however, Kendo (as I will soon read), was "sportified" again, as the population swerved away from militarism.

I find "sportification" to be a fascinating topic because those of us who practice Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu are witnessing similar transitions. BJJ grew out of a sport art, judo, then became "streetified" via the Gracie street brawls and challenge matches. For the last few decades, some BJJ schools have focused on the sport aspects, rather than the self defense elements. Leaders like Rickson Gracie and Pedro Sauer and many others are trying to preserve and promote the self defense characteristics of BJJ, fearing that sportification will deny a key element of BJJ to current and future practitioners.

A similar dynamic seems to be happening in my other main art, Krav Maga. Krav Maga was also born out of combat, in the fight against fascism in Europe in the 1930s-1940s. Krav Maga then became the Israeli Defense Force's hand-to-hand system in the 1950s and beyond. There are no Krav Maga "competitions" that garner any attention, as far as I know. However, the system has effectively adopted a more civilian flavor due to the nature of its demographics -- civilians in mainly industrialized countries. Certainly plenty of soldiers (the IDF of course) and police train Krav Maga, but the majority do not expect to use their training on a regular basis in conflict zones.

Last, I think there are lessons to be learned from arts with longer histories, such as Karate and Kung Fu. I hope to find other books which address how these arts transformed from their origins into the versions we see today.

How do you see the sportification of martial arts?

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