Monday, December 9, 2019

Physical Fitness Principles

In Physical Fitness History, I outlined the following principles I use for my activity:
  • Avoid injury.
  • Work on strength, endurance, balance, and flexibility.
  • Warm up.
  • Stretch.
  • Control breathing.
  • Manage pacing.
  • Manage intensity.
  • Maintain proper form.
  • Don't overdo it.
  • Hydrate.
  • Occupy the mind.
  • Don't compete with others, just measure personal progress.
  • Cool down.
  • Get proper rest.
  • Don't do the same primary workout two days in a row, always alternate days with something else.
  • Use massage therapy balls between workouts.
  • Make getting regular exercise a priority no matter what else is going on.
  • Exercise for the long term, not the short term; this is for the rest of my life.
Here I'll elaborate exactly what I mean by each of those. They work together as a team to reinforce each other and make sure nothing gets out of whack. They form an interlocking set of controls.

Avoid Injury

This is the first priority. If I injure myself, I'll have to back off or stop completely for a while. That can result in losing any progress I've made.

Worse, I'm now at any age where it takes a lot longer to recover from injury than it used to. So that makes it even more likely I'll lose progress.

Over the years I've hurt myself primarily in two ways:
  • Strained muscles due to insufficient warm up and stretching.
  • Strained muscles and joints due to overdoing it in either intensity, duration, speed, or weight.
The first is the result of being impatient. I didn't take the time necessary to prepare for the main workout.

The second is the result of being overly eager and aggressive, trying to push my body past what it was capable of at the time.

Both are the result of youth, being all fired up to GET WITH THE PROGRAM! Both produced days or weeks of pain, and prevented me from doing proper exercise.

It's also important to remember that our muscular systems aren't just muscle tissue. They're also tendons and ligaments and fascia, various connective tissues that make up the joints. It's important to make sure that all these tissues are building equally.

Focusing on building muscles without paying attention to the joints risks causing joint injuries. This can cause shoulder, elbow, wrist, hip, knee, ankle, back, and neck injuries. These can be very painful and interfere with daily life, possibly for a long time.

What I discovered when doing strength exercises was that my muscles built up faster than my joints. As I increased the weight, intensity, or number of reps, my joints would get sore. That became the limiting factor to my progress. I also realized I was at risk of causing a permanent injury that could force me to stop completely.

It's far better for me to exercise restraint and avoid causing an injury. So even though I feel my muscle strength would allow me to workout at higher intensity, I gauge the proper level by how my joints feel.

Work On Strength, Endurance, Balance, and Flexibility

In order to be able to do all the things that I enjoy doing over a long and active life, I need to have strength, endurance, balance, and flexibility. So I mix up my workouts to make sure I work on all of those things.

This isn't just for my muscles. My joints are just as important. I want to have strong, flexible joints that have the endurance to do repetitive activities. I want to be sure my joints aren't the weak link in the chain. As I've gotten older, I've found them to be more of the limiting factor.

Balance actually has multiple meanings:
  • My actual physical balance.
  • Balancing all sides and parts of my body for equal fitness.
  • Balancing the different types of exercise so that I don't focus too much on one at the expense of others.
For strength, I use anaerobic resistance training like Pilates mat work, body-weight exercises, TRX suspension straps, resistance bands, free weights, weight machine, and Pilates machine.

For endurance, I use aerobic activities like running, swimming, cycling, paddling, rowing machine, ski machine, elliptical, and stair-climbing.

For balance and flexibility, I use stretching and yoga.

Warm Up

I warm up at low intensity at the beginning of a workout to prepare for the main activity. My goal is to loosen my muscles, ramp up my pulse and respiration in a controlled fashion, and promote blood flow and oxygenation throughout my body.

This literally warms the body up as the exertion level builds.

I generally do 3-5 minutes of light aerobic exercise for warm up. I start at slow speed and minimum resistance, then increase a notch every 30 to 60 seconds until I'm up near the level of the main workout.

It might be on different equipment from the main activity, or with the same equipment. Since I have a variety of home gym equipment, I have a number of things to choose from.

I often use either the treadmill or the elliptical, set for easy walking pace, with no incline, and minimum resistance. Then I increase the pace as I warm up.

I also use the ski or rowing machines the same way, starting at slow speed, no incline, minimum resistance.

If I'm swimming, I'll start with a couple of easy laps. If I'm kayaking, I'll do a few minutes of easy strokes.

Other things I've done are marching in place, easy jumping jacks, walking back and forth, or going up and down stairs at easy pace.

I try to get a lot of full-body motion in, both legs and arms. I start with an easy level that feels like I could do it for hours without stopping.

Skipping the warm up, or doing an insufficient warm up, risks injuring muscles or joints.


I stretch after warming up to further loosen my muscles. I do it after the warm up because stretching cold, stiff muscles increases the risk of injury just during the stretching phase. My muscles are more pliable and flexible when they've been warmed up.

I use a variety of stretches, based on the activity I'm going to be doing. The book Stretching: 30th Anniversary Edition, by Bob Anderson, is an excellent collection of stretches for all kinds of activities. This is the book our swim coach used to teach us in high school.

For any given stretch, I go only as far as I'm comfortable. When I did karate in my 30's, I was extremely flexible. However, now I'm very inflexible. When I follow along with yoga DVD's, I can't bend to nearly the degree that they show.

Forcing a stretch risks tearing the muscle. So I go just as far as I can, and don't try to force it further. I remind myself that I'm not competing with others for how far I can go.

Just like the warm up, skipping the stretches or doing insufficient stretches risks injuring muscles or joints.

Depending on the activity, I may repeat the stretches after the main workout and cool-down. I find that particularly helpful after running to avoid sore muscles the next day.

Control Breathing

I use several different breathing patterns, depending on what I'm doing.

When I'm doing anaerobic strength exercises such as lifting weights or body-weight exercises, I exhale through the mouth on the exertion (i.e. when lifting the weight, or when pushing my body against gravity) and inhale through the nose on the recovery (i.e. when lowering of the weight, or when lowering my body with gravity). I think of it as "blowing out the work".

When I'm doing aerobic exercises such as running, rowing, or ski machine, I do a three-four pattern. That is, I inhale for a 3-count, and exhale for a 4-count. The count may be strides (3 strides of the run or ski machine to 4 strides), or simply counting at a regular pace one-two-three, one-two-three-four.

I try to breath entirely through the nose for this kind of activity, to avoid dry and burning throat. But if I'm going through a tough spot, I'll exhale through the mouth like when doing strength exercises, and try to get back to the more controlled nose exhalation. I'm aiming for steady, relaxed breathing.

The reason I do a longer exhale is to blow out carbon dioxide to reduce the buildup of lactate in my muscles, to prevent soreness. This is something I learned back in the 80's when I was training for triathlons, but I've recently seen information that says lactate buildup doesn't cause sore muscles.

Regardless of the actual physiology, I find that a regular pattern of longer exhalations results in good deep inhalations to oxygenate my system, and I avoid sore muscles and side-stitches.

If I need to breath faster than the 3-4 pattern, I do a 2-3 pattern. The key is that even though I'm breathing faster, I'm still exhaling longer than inhaling. And then I try to get back to the 3-4 pattern.

For swimming freestyle or back stroke, I take a breath every other full stroke, then hold it for a full stroke and blow it out hard on the half-stroke before taking the next breath. If I'm out of breath, I'll take a breath every full stroke, but I try to get back to taking a breath every other stroke.

For breast stroke, I typically breathe once per stroke, since I'm usually using it as a slower, more leisurely stroke.

When using a kickboard, I try to maintain a pattern of longer exhale than inhale, similar to running.

When I'm having difficulty, I find that controlling my breathing helps me manage it and bring the overall activity back into control. It's a good physical and mental centering action.

The worst situation is totally uncontrolled breathing, which results in hyperventilating and poor oxygenation. If I get to that, I focus on controlling my breathing to stabilize it. I slow it down, take full deep breaths and hold them, then blow them out slowly.

If I'm in real duress and just need to get through it, focusing entirely on my breathing is a great mental activity to block out everything else and give me the single-mindedness I need. But I also try to avoid that situation as much as possible, because it increases the risk of injury.

Even when it's not that bad, breath control is an excellent mental discipline to cut through the monotony of a repetitive workout, and suddenly it's done with much less awareness of the time passing.

Depending on the activity, I also try to use full deep belly-breathing rather than just shallow chest-breathing. I use my abdominal muscles to increase the volume of the inhalation, and more fully complete the exhalation. That also helps me control and manage the pace and exertion.

Some types of exercise, such as yoga and Pilates, incorporate explicit breathing control as part of their practice.

After years of doing these breathing patterns, they've become automatic, and I'm able to get control pretty quickly when I need to.

Manage Pacing

I manage my pace in order to make sure I don't overdo it, and to ensure I get adequate rest cycles.

As with breathing, this depends on the activity. For strength exercises, I make sure I'm doing repetitions (reps) at a controlled, steady, relatively slow pace. This slow pace is something I learned from Wayne Westcott's book Strength Training Past 50. He says to avoid fast motions that move the weights though momentum. Instead, the slow motions mean that your muscles are controlling the weight.

I also make sure that I control the period between sets of reps. For instance, when I complete a set of 8 reps with a weight, I rest for 15-60 seconds before the next set. So I'm pacing both the individual reps and the overall workout.

For aerobic exercises, I do several types of pacing. One type is to steadily build up the pace from the warm-up level to the maximum level I'm using for the rest of the workout.

Another type is interval training, where I do a fixed amount of time at high intensity, then a fixed amount of time at low intensity. For instance, two minutes at high intensity, and one minute at low intensity, repeating this alternating cycle for the whole workout. I use a variety of different timing ratios.

When I'm swimming at an average 2 minutes per 100 yards pace, I'll swim 4 lengths, taking part of that 2 minutes, then rest until the remainder of the 2 minutes are up.

I can adjust this timing throughout the workout depending on what intensity I want to do, or how I'm feeling.

I also use pacing to avoid going out too hard. When I do a 5K run event, it's easy to get caught up in the moment and try to keep up with people 20 or 30 years younger than me. That adrenaline rush of being with the crowd is a recipe for injury.

Similarly, when I'm swimming or biking, it's easy to unconsciously compete with the person in the next lane or on the bike path. Careful pacing prevents that and keeps me at a level that I'm used to.

As with the stretching, I remind myself that I'm not competing with others for how fast I can go. They have their pace. I have mine.

If I'm using a machine that has a speed or pace display, I can use that to control the pace. If I don't have some kind of display to watch, I can use my breathing, gauging it to decide whether to increase or reduce my pace.

Manage Intensity

I manage the intensity of the exercise very similarly to the way I manage the pace, for all the same reasons.

Where pace is speed, intensity is anything that can be adjusted to make the exercise easier or harder. That could be weight, number of reps, number of sets, time, distance, incline, resistance, tension, gear, etc.

For strength exercises, I pay attention to how my muscles and joints feel during each rep, at the end of each set, and throughout the workout. Strength training tends to isolate specific muscle and joint groups, focusing the resistance on them. That's particularly true for weight machines.

That focused resistance can easily cause an injury if I don't watch for signs of fatigue or overuse. I generally do 3 sets of 8 reps of each individual exercise. The joints involved should feel fine throughout the exercise, and should still feel fine at the completion of the third set. If at any time I feel discomfort in the joints, I back off to the next lighter weight.

I use a weight that allows me to complete the first set easily, feels reasonable at the end of the second set, but takes some effort for the third set. If it makes the first or second set feel difficult, I back off to the next lighter weight.

This strategy is not the one I would follow if I wanted to bulk up my muscles quickly, but I'm past the age where I'm interested in that. This is a more conservative strategy appropriate for my age and risk of injury, and my goal of long-term sustainability.

For aerobic exercises, I pay similar attention and adjust as needed. If I'm doing interval training, I can increase the intensity a bit for the high-intensity phase, since it will be followed by a low-intensity phase. If I'm doing a long-duration steady-intensity activity, such as a continuous bike ride, I reduce the intensity a bit to allow me to maintain it for the whole time.

In addition to paying attention to how I feel in the moment, I generally don't increase anything more than 10% over what I did the last time I did that activity. So I don't increase the speed or weight or distance more than 10% over the previous maximum.

The only time I break this rule is when I'm starting up something new, and the adjustments between the initial levels are more than 10%. For example, if I start a new weight exercise with 15 lbs. and the next weight is 20 lbs., which is a 33% increase.

That's generally not a problem at such light weights. If it does turn out to be a problem, I simply reduce the number of reps per set.

Different exercises and machines have different adjustments, but by managing pace and intensity together, I have a great degree of control over the workout.

In general now, I keep to "old man pace": back off, back down, rein in, take it easy, keep it at a level I can maintain for the rest of my life.

Maintain Proper Form

Poor form causes poor performance, reduces efficiency, and risks injury. I make sure that I'm doing the activity with proper form at all times.

If I need to, I'll go slower so I can focus on the form and get it right. I may even stop completely and practice the individual moves step-by-step, which is what I used to do with martial arts. As I repeat it and the proper form becomes more automatic, I increase back to a normal pace.

Poor form is also an indication of too high an intensity. If I can't do a weightlift with proper form, it probably means I'm using too much weight. If I'm having trouble doing an aerobic activity cleanly, it probably means I need to dial it down a bit.

Being aware of my form is a good way to maintain control of the workout.

Don't Overdo It

While I'm working out, I monitor everything continuously to make sure I'm not exceeding a level that will cause injury. Don't go too fast, or too long, or too hard, or too heavy.

I keep in mind not just how I feel at the moment, but how I'll feel at the end of the workout, later in the day, and the next day. Some overuse injuries aren't fully apparent until a day later.

Whenever I start to get overeager or too aggressive, I remind myself not to overdo it. My experience has been that overdoing it in one way or another is the cause of most injuries. Pay attention and don't do something stupid.

I use the other principles to tell me if I can push farther or not. Or if I need to stop.


I drink 8-16 oz of water during each workout, sometimes more. Most workouts have regular rest points that allow me to take a quick sip. Others require me to break pattern or intensity momentarily to take a drink. I avoid needing to guzzle a large amount in the middle of a workout.

Throughout the rest of the day and evening, I drink an additional 1-4 qt depending on how I'm feeling.

Many years ago I learned to gauge my hydration level by whether my lips were moist. That allows me to recognize when I'm on the verge of minor dehydration before it becomes a problem.

This is especially important when I'm doing something outside in cold weather. In hot weather, it's obvious that I need to drink water, but cold weather can be subtly dehydrating. It's easy to forget that all that vapor I see in my exhaled breath is water my body is losing.

Occupy The Mind

I occupy my mind in various ways while working out. That makes me less conscious of the time passing, so workouts are never drudgery or boring. Managing the combination of breathing, pace, and intensity is one way.

If I'm not following along with a yoga DVD or something else, I like to listen to podcasts. As an embedded software geek, my favorite is Guests they've had there have led to other interesting ones:
When I'm doing an aerobic activity that involves either a time or count goal, I'll play mind games with the numbers. I'll calculate the fraction and percentage that I've done, calculate the next fraction, and break down the amount remaining into chunks.

That also helps me avoid losing count, because at some point my oxygen-deprived brain has trouble just doing simple math, let alone following along with a technical podcast.

I used to watch movie DVD while working out, but there's far too much interesting stuff in podcasts now. I like the double value of learning something new at the same time I'm getting my exercise in.

I also like to think I'm maintaining my mental fitness at the same time I'm maintaining my physical fitness, another important requirement for living to a hundred.

Don't Compete With Others

It's very tempting to measure myself against others. How much weight are they doing, or how fast are they going, or how far? When I was younger, that was a useful motivational factor. But I no longer feel the need to compete athletically.

I'm at an age where it's just plain risky to do that. Other people have their performance levels, I have mine. Trying to compete with someone who's exercising at a higher level risks overdoing it and hurting myself.

All I care about is how I'm doing relative to myself. What additional weight or speed or distance can I manage? How should I pace that out to avoid injury? How does my current level compare with last week, or last year?

PR's (Personal Records) are all I worry about. And making sure achieving them is reasonable without overdoing it.

Cool Down

I cool down at the end of a workout to back down from the main activity. It's just a reverse warm up, where my goal is to relax my muscles after exertion, ramp down my pulse and respiration in a controlled fashion, and promote blood flow and oxygenation throughout my body.

This literally cools the body down as the exertion level drops.

I generally do 3-5 minutes of similar activity to what I did for warm up, tapering off the intensity a notch every 30 to 60 seconds back to slow speed and minimum resistance. By the last minute, I should be breathing at completely normal resting level.

The time it takes me to recover to resting state is a good gauge of whether I overdid it or not. Quick recovery time means I stayed within my limits. Long recovery time means I was risking injury, so I make a mental note to lighten up next time.

Get Proper Rest

I make sure to get proper rest both during the workout and between workouts.

For a workout consisting of reps and sets, I make sure to get a rest breath in between reps, and take 15-60 seconds between sets.

When I'm swimming in sets of lengths, I make sure to get at least 15 seconds before the next set. Usually I'm working to a specific average pace per set that ensures a rest period.

Whatever I'm doing, if I feel like I'm running out of steam, I'll either drop down to a minimal "resting" pace for a few minutes, or stop completely and take a break of a minute or two. That's short enough to recover, but not long enough for the muscles to start cooling down or tightening up.

I make sure to get a good night's sleep. I generally do best with somewhere between 7 and 9 hours of sleep. Less than that, and I really feel it, tired and run down, and it can affect my attitude and motivation. More than that, and I feel groggy and thick-headed.

My goal is to feel sharp and energetic all the time.

Don't Do The Same Primary Workout Two Days In A Row

I mix up different workouts to make sure I don't do the same thing two days in a row. If I feel the need to do multiple workouts of the same kind in a week, I make sure to do something different in between.

That allows my body, my joints, and my muscles to recover in between. It reduces the risk of an overuse injury due to repeatedly stressing things the same way.

The only exception to this is weekend activities where I'm doing something for the whole weekend, like a couple days of paddling or biking. Then I pay attention to make sure I'm not overly stressing any part of my body with the repeated activity, and make sure I get adequate breaks and rest in between.

Use Massage Therapy Balls

If I were rich, I'd get a deep-tissue massage every day. But I'm not, so I don't. Massage therapy balls are the next best thing. More information on these is available at Jill Miller's Tune Up Fitness website, including videos.

These are spongy rubber balls that I roll against to apply a form of deep tissue massage. They're stiffer than typical stress-management squeeze balls, but softer than tennis balls. They apply pressure similar to the heel of the hand.

I generally lean up against a wall and tuck a ball up under a knot in my back or shoulders, although I also lie down flat on the floor and do it.

With the ball in place, I move against it in various directions or in circles to make it work the knot. I'm sure I look like pretty funny squirming around, but that allows me to put very precise pressure in exactly the right spot, as much as I want.

By leaning in and out a bit as I squirm, I can maneuver the ball all around my back and shoulders. That's harder to do when lying on the floor.

I also use it on my legs, always on the floor. I'll roll it under my calves and hamstrings, then roll over onto my stomach and side, rolling it under my thighs and IT band (the iliotibial band is the stiff band of fascia you can feel when you run your hand down the outside of your thigh).

These will never replace a skilled massage therapist, but they allow me to work on knots whenever I want, and they're completely portable.

Make Getting Regular Exercise A Priority

Exercise needs to be a regular habit, like brushing my teeth or breathing. I just do it, because it needs to be done.

I try to ensure that no matter what, I always get my exercise in. If I occasionally have to miss a day, that's not a problem. But I make sure not to let anything become a permanent disruption.

Life throws all kinds of curve balls that disrupt our routines. Some are pleasant, like holidays and vacations, and some aren't, like sickness and family emergencies. And some are permanent, like job changes, that require figuring out a new set of logistics.

Most transient disruptions are either very short or allow getting some kind exercise in. If I'm traveling, I make use of whatever gym facilities are available. Worst case, I can just go for a long walk. In any case, I'm usually able to return to my regular routine the next week or so.

Other than injuries, these kinds of disruptions over the years have resulted in stopping whatever exercise program I was doing. In order to prevent that from happening again, I think of exercise as a regular part of daily life, like sleeping, eating, and bathing. So I make it a priority to return to normalcy as quickly as possible.

Exercise For The Long Term, Not The Short Term

I don't care about short term results. I'm focused on the long term, to be able to sustain this for the rest of my life. That means I'll be physically able to do the activities I enjoy for the rest of my life.

As I apply the other principles, this is my overriding perspective, wrapping them all up to keep me on track.

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