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It would be really easy to not write this post. I spent the week at SxSWEdu and when I returned home I competed in the Crossfit Open and spread five yards of wood chips. My wife is still out of town, so no one is looking, and the TV looks really good right about now. That’s the whole point though. Willpower is about doing the difficult task instead of the easy one. It’s about perseverance as much as it is about self-restraint. In writing this (instead of queuing up a pile of Star Trek on Netflix while eating potato chips) I am exercising my “I won’t”, “I will”, and “I want” powers all at the same time. I will write this post and I won’t watch TV because I want to write consistently.

Here goes part three of my willpower project. If you’re just getting on board now, you may be interested in jumping back to part one.

Reflecting on Week 2:

It is easy to let travel disrupt routines and intentions, and I experienced some of that disruption while at SxSWEdu in Austin. The first thing to go was the meditation followed by exercise. It was too easy to just get up and begin the day without taking the five to ten minutes to sit in meditation, and I didn’t have the convenience of my gym. I was aware that I was skipping the meditation and workouts, but did nothing to remedy the action. I feel no guilt at this. I want to acknowledge it for the sake of mindfulness. Plus one for self-awareness, minus one for volition.

In terms of the specific experiments for week two though, I was more consistent. As expected, not having a car, forced me to spend the appropriate time outside. (A lack of rain significantly helped this despite historically low temperatures on March 3rd.) Since I got back home, I’ve been able to continue to get outside because I had five yards of wood chips to spread. Now that the wood chips are spread it will take some additional intentionality to get myself outside in an active capacity on a regular basic. Hopefully the transition into spring and warmer, and possibly drier, weather will help facilitate this. (Oh right, I live in the Northwest and it’s raining while I write this. Getting outside is securely in the “I will” category.)

Perhaps because I was out of my regular routine, I did not find much need to use intentional breathing to keep my fight or flight response in check while in Austin. I did have one instance where my anxiety rose (during the session where I was being filmed) and I took guidance from Kelly McGonigal’s TED talk about recontextualizing stress to work for us instead of against us. This is similar to adjusting breathing to control fight or flight. When I returned home and competed in the Crossfit Open, however, I definitely had to monitor my fight or flight reaction. Any type of competition gets my stress levels very high, and I had to actively control my breathing in order to keep the nerves at bay and lift with proper form. I wasn’t able to completely control the response, and had a small hiccup at the beginning, but I did feel myself regain partial control before my heat and I performed well. The breathing technique will definitely take more practice and I need to keep it in mind for future situations.

Chapter 3: Too Tired to Resist: Why Self-Control is Like a Muscle

This was the right chapter for this week. As mentioned above, I’m pretty beat, albeit in a #firstworldproblems sort of way. This chapter is all about laying out McGonigal’s muscle model for willpower that she covered fairly deeply in her talk at NTC. The big point is that while willpower is limited in the short term, it is extremely growable in the long term. Just like our muscles. The more I squat, the stronger my legs get.

In a given period of time, I can only do so many pull-ups and overhead squats, as open workout 14.2 showed me in no uncertain terms. At a certain point my muscles stop responding and I fatigue. The pull-up that seemed fairly straightforward at the beginning of the workout becomes an impossible mountain to climb. Willpower is similar. We exert our willpower on something, and we run out of gas. Despite this short-term limit though, through training we can increase our work capacity. When I began exercising in earnest (about four years ago) one pull-up was extremely difficult, while now I can do many in a row. McGonigal’s argument is that willpower functions in the same way. We train the willpower “muscle” and its work capacity will improve over time. We can expand our willpower tank. What used to be extremely difficult becomes less so. I’ve experienced this firsthand with exercise. It used to be a difficult willpower task to get into the gym on a regular basis, and now it is second nature. Through practice and repetition the difficult task has become normal and I’m trying to get writing to that same place.

The other fascinating piece of this chapter is a link between diet and willpower, finding that our willpower is tied to blood sugar levels, and blood sugar trajectory in very direct ways. As one might hypothesize, consistent blood sugar and a low-glycemic diet, help us maintain consistent willpower. Huge fluctuations in blood sugar lead to fluctuations in willpower. This is something that I hadn’t thought of, but it makes a lot of sense. Good fuel means good performance physically and why should our mental capabilities behave differently?

This upcoming week continues the willpower-monitoring theme, however, this time McGonigal is asking for her readers to track times of high and low willpower. This is primarily tied to time of day, but I have a hypothesis that physical location matters as well. I know that I work better in some environments. I find that I write well on airplanes for instance. (Something about the limited stimuli I think.) I also know that it’s hard for me to focus when I’m in cluttered space.

The experiments this week cover eating well, finding a “want” power to act as a reminder of long-term goals, and creating a specific willpower workout in which I should attempt to control something that I usually don’t control. I am confident in my diet, and this extra monitoring will serve as a strong reset post-travel. (I wasn’t interested in resisting tacos while in Austin.) I will continue to use my desire to write more consistently as my “I want” power to refocus myself. Lastly, for a willpower workout I will focus on monitoring my sitting posture to maintain healthy spine position. Here’s to a week of clean eating and a well-aligned back.

I’ve been going nonstop from meeting to meeting all day. Watch a class, debrief with the teacher, head to the next school. Repeat. Meet with administrators. Next school. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. It’s been a long day, and I need to take my mind off work.

[Cut to the gym.]

I look down and set my feet straight under my shoulders keeping my weight balanced between my heel and the ball of my foot. I bend at the hip and knee, extending my arms to grip the bar just outside my legs, keeping my arms straight, and wrapping my thumb and fingers into a tight hook grip. Squeezing my quads, glutes, abs, lats, and grip I smoothly raise the bar, removing all other thoughts, and initiating the first pull.

As the bar comes past the top of my knee I initiate the second pull by explosively extending my hips, forcing the bar into a faster upward trajectory. This movement immediately merges into the third pull where with all deliberate speed I pull myself under the bar and extend my arms upward, whipping the bar into an overhead position. I then stand up through an overhead squat to finish the movement. With the snatch completed I let the bar fall to the floor, and along with the bar falls the stress and anxiety from the long day of work. Repeat, repeat, repeat to exhaustion. Decompression begins.

I love my work. I believe passionately in the power of education to transform lives, end cycles of poverty, and improve the world we live in. This work, however, is also extremely stressful. There is much at stake in education. Whether as a classroom teacher or now as an instructional coach, the work of education applies a very personal sort of stress on the educator. We are in the business of growing people, and as such we have to take people where they are with all of their own stresses, difficulties, and barriers and help them do the immensely challenging work of self-improvement. By uncovering, naming, and overcoming these barriers we, as educators, are constantly exposed to the stresses of others. Additionally, many educators, myself included, have high standards for our students and ourselves. We are continually looking at how to improve our work and achieve better results. It is natural that some of this stress rubs off on us and follows us home. We need ways to decompress.

For me, proper decompression comes through intense physical activity. I am continually thinking about education. I wake up thinking. I go to sleep thinking. I think through dinner and housework. I process, analyze, reflect, and evaluate my work constantly. For me to fully decompress I need to engage in activity that is so demanding of my focus that it becomes impossible for me to think of anything else. Crossfit fills this need.

The combination of volume, weight and intensity from Crossfit creates an ideal decompression environment in which I have no choice but to focus completely on the workout and put aside all other concerns. As with the snatch example above, I need to fully concentrate on moving my body in order to execute the proper lift. If I am not completely focused it could lead to poor results and possibly injury. This leaves no room for the business of the day, forcing me to shut those concerns out of my conscious brain. Once the workout is in progress all my energy is spent on breathing, movement, and persevering. The work is all encompassing and I enter a meditative state in which the rest of the world ceases to exist. When finished I can go back to my thoughts with new perspective and while I will be physically exhausted, I will be mentally revitalized.

Anyone living or working in a stressful environment needs a method of decompression. For myself intense physical activity is the right choice and has become an integral part of my life. For others it may be gardening, painting, a nap, or a leisurely walk through the neighborhood. It is important to keep in mind that the method of decompression should act as a net benefit to your system. A drink and a cigarette after a long day can be momentarily calming, however, the negative side effects incurred far outstrip the temporary relaxation. Likewise over training (in the case of exercise) can be very detrimental, leaving one more exhausted and unproductive. The activity should leave you with a feeling that you are capable of coming back to your challenges and attacking them with newfound vigor.

Being effective in your work requires balance in your life outside of work. In education we see the impacts of an unbalanced life every day in students. These students come to class hungry, tired, and under great amounts of stress, all of which prevents them from learning at the height of their abilities, and stunts their growth. Teachers have the same responsibilities to balance their lives in order to deliver the education that is at the height of their abilities as teachers and allows them to grow their practice. The grading will wait. Trust that the lesson is adequately planned. Go decompress and be mentally and physically prepared for a full day of teaching ahead.

In need of a medicine ball for your workouts?  Don’t feel like dropping 70 bucks on a Dynamax ball?  I’ve got your solution.

When I work out I more or less lift heavy and do solo Crossfit.  My (seriously awesome) gym has all kinds of medicine balls, but the big, heavy, non-reactive, Dynamax balls are reserved for during classes and quite expensive, so being fed up with substituting exercises I took the advice of the Crossfit main site and made my own.

Materials:
Old basketball (other balls would work too I’m sure)
Bucket of sand
Funnel (optional)
Some old rags
A bunch of duct tape
Cutting Tool (Knife was better than scissors)

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Step 1:  Cut a hole in the ball.  The smaller the better.
(Try to go smaller than the image below.  This will be the weakest spot on your medicine ball.)

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Step 2:  Tuck a few rags into the ball.  This helps fill space so the sand doesn’t slosh around.  Particularly useful if you’re making a lighter ball.

Step 3:  Fill with stand to a bit under the desired weight.  I was going for 20# so I pretty much filled it up all the way.

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Step 4:  Pack in some more rags to fill any remaining space.  The more you fill the ball with rags, the more stable it will be.  If you want an intentionally unstable ball, leave out the rags.

Step 5:  Wrap it with tons of duct tape.  Create patterns with colored duct tape.  Differentiate different weights with different styles/colors.  The key here is that the hole will be a weak point in the medicine ball so you really need to pile on the duct tape.  Two slams split my initial tape job so I went back with a vengeance and used a serious amount of tape on the ball.

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I misjudged a bit and my medicine ball is 20.8# after taping, but that just means I’ll get a better workout.  I’d recommend filling your ball about half a pound under your target weight.

A few bucks in duct tape and you’ve got a completely viable medicine ball.  Enjoy!

There was ninety-five pounds on the ground in front of me and I was supposed to lift it over my head in one movement.  My previous max was seventy-five pounds.  I was not thrilled, and a little nervous, at the prospect of moving straight from a naked bar (45#) to ninety-five.

Then he said “you’ve got this.  Just pick it up.”

And I did.  And I PRed my snatch by twenty pounds.  Just like that.  Then I did eight more snatches at ninety-five pounds.  Then I did twelve snatches at one hundred and fifteen pounds.  At the end of about fifteen minutes I’d hit a PR on the snatch by forty pounds.  Not because I was any stronger than when I’d walked into the gym.  Because of coaching.  My trainer was right in front of me giving me useful feedback on my form, consistent encouragement, and the unwavering belief that I was fully capable of the task he’d set in front of me.

This is why coaching is so powerful.  Before that day I’d been scared to even power clean more than ninety-five pounds, let alone snatch it.  After that workout I feel much more comfortable with the movement and increasing my weight.

Ten minutes of feedback and coaching and I’m feeling empowered.

This success through coaching is possible in education as well as physical exercise.

There is an article in The New Yorker (Oct. 2011) where a surgeon made the connection that athletes like Raphael Nadal and LeBron James continue to employ coaches despite their incredible ability (often many coaches).  He then posited that it would be logical then to have a coach for his surgery to act as an additional set of eyes and provide feedback so he could improve his practice, thus drawing to attention how our best athletes are continually coached throughout their careers, yet other professions receive no coaching after their introductory education.

Teaching fits directly into this no-coaching category.  As a teacher with four years of experience, I receive direct feedback from my evaluator only twice a year.  In my first year I was observed three times, though the third was more of a formality of the hiring process and I was given zero feedback from that last observation.

I’ve had the benefit of helpful administrators and as such have found the observation process valuable.  I’m provided with strong feedback that allows me to improve my practice.  Additionally my administrators have been anything but punitive and we’re able to have an open discussion about what went on in the classroom.  Every time I’m observed I learn something I can improve and I’ve incorporated much of that feedback into regular practice.

I appear to be something of an anomaly though.  Many of my co-workers (and I’ve worked at four schools) have anxiety related to the observation process.  There is a general fear that their practice will be criticized, punitive measures will be taken, and the idea that they might fail in some respect.  The solution is clear to me: more coaching.

We need to move the current high stakes observation model into a coaching model.  Every time a professional sports team practices they have a coach running the practice.  When the athletes train individually the invariably have personal trainers to help them improve.  This is what we need for teachers as well.

I understand that it is unreasonable for a teacher to have a one to one ratio with a coach at all times.  As valuable as that might be, there are more efficient options.  I particularly reasonable option would be to open up funding for strong teachers to become coaches.  This could be a progressive system where teachers who show individual leadership can move from teaching five classes, to teaching four, but having a coaching responsibility within their department.  As they improve as coaches they could move to increasing their coaching responsibility.  This would allow successful teachers to pass on institutional knowledge about pedagogy and curriculum to new teachers, and it would allow for career path options for older teachers.  This would serve to help new teachers and prevent burnout among veterans.

Additionally moving to a coaching model would allow teachers to be observed more frequently.  By increasing the frequency of observations two main things will be achieved.  First with more observations the relative stakes of a single observations are significantly lower.  You know there will be more chances to show your ability and “one bad day” will not be as detrimental.  Secondly this will give administrators a substantially better sample of what a given teacher’s classroom looks like.  The coaching teacher need only write up a brief report of their observations to work in conjunction with the current administrator-centered evaluation system.

In the current model many teachers gear up for an observation, pull out their “great lesson”, and plan the day down to the detail.  I know teachers who report using the same lesson (or style of lesson) when they are observed for multiple years in a row.  For unscheduled observations teachers will go into hyperdrive for a week or two once they hear a colleague has been observed and then relax back into their normal routine once their observation is passed.  I am personally guilty of both of these practices and while they have helped me get excellent evaluations, they do not necessarily push me to improve my practice in the way that regular coaching has in my athletic endeavors.

If we want to improve instruction on a broad level coaching and mentorship are necessary.  Administrators are already overextend and coaching is something that peer teachers and department heads could do if it were properly built into a school’s schedule and budget.  Continuing to ask more of our education system without providing the appropriate support structures will not create change.

One of the main positive aspects of standards based grading is the students’ ability to show mastery of a learning target multiple times.  This process can work with training teachers as well.  The country continually points out failing schools, inadequate teachers, and a general decline in the quality of public education.  We are accused of having a broken public education system.  In my experience, most teachers want to provide high quality education to their students.  These teachers have the heart.  They have the desire to be great.  What they need is guidance and education on how to achieve greatness.  We tell students that they have support and that even the best of the best only succeed with strong support structures.  It is time to add that support structure to our teachers.

Today marked the end of my first Wendler 5/3/1 cycle.  4 weeks working on 4 different lifts: back squats, bench press, deadlift, and overhead press.

The main idea is that (following the programming) you perform each lift at a specific percentage of your max for a specified number of reps.  One cycle lasts for 16 workouts and takes about a month to complete.  The entire goal here is pure strength without worrying about anything else.  (Other work you do is on your own, and is not covered by the 5/3/1 system.  I do a lot of other fitness work.)

There’s no magic here.  Jim Wendler isn’t saying that you’ll add 100lbs to your squat in five months.  He’s saying you can do that in about a year.  As long as you stick with it and continue to put in the hard work you should see results.  In an interview with T-Nation Wendler had the following to say about the program: ” the reason I came up with 5/3/1 was that I wanted a program that eliminated stupid thoughts from my head and just let me go into the weight room and get shit done.”

I will pause here to say that I already had a solid lifting and strength base before starting.  Until January of this year I’d worked with a trainer  doing strength and conditioning work so my form is pretty good, I have strong body awareness, and I’ve had solid experience observing how to properly program workouts around a strength session.  If you are less familiar with things working with a coach is invaluable (even if it’s just a more experienced friend) and Wendler’s book has recommendations for assistance work and how to do the lifts properly.

So far it’s been doing just that for me.  I don’t get excited about programming strength work.  I’m far more interested in putting my energy into circuit training, skills work, and metabolic conditioning workouts.  I like getting strength results and I have strength goals, but the process doesn’t interest me.  5/3/1 has been perfect for that so far because it allows me to just get some heavy lifting in without agonizing over which lifts, for how many reps, at what percentage.

Beyond the simplicity I really like that at the end of each workout the last set is essentially listed as max reps.  So in the first week the workout would be:

5 reps at 65%
5 reps at 75%
5+ reps at 85%

That little + at the end of the third set is the real winner.  That’s when you push yourself to go beyond what’s comfortable and find out what you can really lift.  In the third week the last set is 1+ reps at 95%.  That’s 95% of your single rep max lift.  I was seriously excited when I busted out 9 bench press reps at 160lbs a couple weeks ago.  The last set of the workout is where you hit your goals and where you find your new max.  It’s not about increasing your single rep max, though that will happen, but it’s about increasing your overall strength which includes reps and weight.

Tomorrow marks the first day of the second round.  I’m adding 10 pounds to the training weight for squats and deadlifts, and 5 pounds to bench and overhead press.  That’s the standard.  (Wendler has a big focus on keeping ego in check when it comes to adding weight.)  So, in theory I should hit my deadlift goal of 340lbs (~2x bodyweight) somewhere in July as long as I stick with the system.

For now I’m sticking to the four main lifts, but the theory can be easily applied to any lifts.  The Olympic lifts come to mind first since I want to improve my snatch, clean, and overhead squat.  I can definitely see a cycle in the future where I sub out the overhead press for a clean and jerk for example.  Weighted dips or weighted pull-ups could make an appearance as well.  The four main lifts are primary because they have significant carryover benefit to other lifts, but they are not exhaustive.

There are lifting programs that advertise faster results, but I really appreciate the ability to just turn my brain off and just lift.  Strength is a goal, but not my primary goal so I’m very satisfied with steady progress.

 

I didn’t do a workout yesterday.  I was up late Saturday, I was annoyed at life, and it was Sunday so I told myself I would be fine.  And I was.

Today though I tried to do the same.  I had a late meeting (4:30 is late in teacher land) and the gym would be crowded with the regular after work folks and the post-work classes by the time I got there.  I’d also get home later than usual and so it would make dinner late.  I had all kinds of excuses.

My wife encouraged me to go anyway.  She probably figured I was still a bit annoyed at life from yesterday and taxing myself physically would be good for me.  She was right.

Photo Credit: Flickr User Danka, Used under CCL.

The gym was crowded.  There was equipment being set up for circuit training classes, and I only had fifteen minutes on a squat

rack to get in a strength session before I would be relegated to a far corner of the gym so I had to work without wasting time.  I also told myself that I would be in and out of the gym in an hour or less including time to change.

5:05 I was out of the locker room and changed.  I had until about 5:20 to warm up and knock out 3 sets of 5 overhead presses for strength.

By 5:25 it was metcon time.  I gave myself a 15min AMRAP workout to make sure that
I hit my target time.

I was out by 5:45 and essentially home by 6:00.  I put in a good, dedicated 40 minutes of work and it felt good.  My mood turned around and I’m excited to go back tomorrow and put in a more intense workout.

Strength:

Overhead Press:
5 @ 80lbs
5 @ 90lbs
5+ @ 105lbs (I got 8)

Metcon:  15min AMRAP

10 tire flips
4 Turkish Getups (2 each side @ 16kg)
10 pushups (hand release)
10 situps (strict)
10 sumo deadlift high pulls (16kg)

4 rounds even.  Not fancy, but it worked.  For the future:  Turkish Getups are too slow for a good metcon.

I was trying to write a review of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and I was getting frustrated just going around in circles, feeling like I was rehashing things that had already been written in other reviews.  I wasn’t offering any new insight, and I may as well have just posted a link to an appropriate review and called it a day.

This is because the book itself is a rehash of Grahame-Smith’s previous work Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  Take a topic, mash some undead into it, publish, … , profit.  Sounds good right?  Well it worked the first time.  P&P&Z worked because it was a new idea.  Additionally a major theme of Jane Austen’s classic (that I hated in high school English) is about how as a society we ignore and obfuscate a lot of what makes us tick like sex and money.  We still ignore and obfuscate these things so the reinterpretation of the classic works.  Score one for appropriately contextualizing your themes so that your readership can relate!

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Spoiler Alert from this point forward: But seriously some of it is so obvious that high school U.S. history is a spoiler.)  doesn’t have this same contemporary link.  More books have been written about Lincoln than any other historical figure save Jesus.  There is a gigantic pile of very serious work on Lincoln’s life and a lot of history nerds (like myself) come well equipped to a book like this.

For the beginning of the book Grahame-Smith gets it very right.  Take the beloved figure of Lincoln, equip him with an axe and some serious 19th Century cross-training, then pit him against an insidious vampire menace.  Honest Abe stands on the side of good and works to eradicate the vampire threat from face of the earth.  The nerd in me screamed “HELL YES!” when Lincoln ices his first bloodsucker.

The book takes a pretty precipitous dip once Lincoln grows up and begins his political career.  We get a strong link between slavery and vampires that is all too obvious.  It’s almost like Grahame-Smith started the book with all the intent of creating a gory, action filled, nerdtacular guilty pleasure, but then felt obligated to add some social commentary on the slavery debate and the Civil War.  Why?  Who knows.

OK.  We get it.  Slave owners are like vampires because they make their living off the destruction of others.  And…?  The last third or so is simply bland and predictable.  The method is clear, the novelty of the concept has over-stayed it’s welcome, and a reader with even the most basic understanding of 19th Century U.S. history will know where it’s going.  Most vampires side with the South in the Civil War, there are a few good ones, and Lincoln gets shot by a Vampire John Wilkes Booth.  Shocking, right?

The first third is really fun.  Grahame-Smith brings energy and indulgent action, then it just dies and feels formulaic.  I’m glad I read it since if I hadn’t I would just keep wondering, however, the upcoming film may be a better way to get your guilty Abe-with-an-axe pleasure fix.

 

Today’s WOD:

6 Descending Sets by two (20, 18, 16, etc.. Reps) Versa Climber sets do not descend.
Box Jumps (24″)
Kettlebell Swings (20kg)
Push-ups
100ft Versa Climber (Drago is using it right at the beginning of the clip)
20;48 and a smoked posterior chain.