Wednesday, December 22, 2010

1,000 Muscle Ups

"Alright, would you rather do 10,000 pressups… or 1,000 muscle ups?"

It wasn’t a surprising question to be asked since we ask each other these kinds of things all the time, like “Could you take that drop and walk away?”, or “If this balcony was going to collapse in 10 seconds, what would you do?” and in fact both questions I had answered in the last week.
But even though these questions are always being circulated amongst us and might raise a smile, they’re always deadly serious, and your answer is expected to be also. If the next day that balcony did begin to collapse and you found yourself standing on it, what WOULD you do? That’s the point, to get you thinking and to make you find an answer so that if it happens, well you have the answer already, there’s no more thought needed.

Anyway, after a few minutes I said I’d rather do 1,000 muscle ups and we went back to eating our food in the Brazilian Chinese restaurant… that is, a restaurant in Brazil that serves Chinese food. Then I really began to think about it and we talked it over a little more, estimating the time it might take, how it would compare to the three hundred muscle ups we had done the year before, whether it would be possible or not within 24 hours etc.
Then I said something that I knew might as well be carved in stone, “I’m gonna do it”. I knew I’d have to keep my word, with these guys it’s always the same and if you say you’ll do it then you have to do it. Within fifteen minutes, Dan was in too, and within the hour, Stephane had committed himself, then Bruno. We laughed over dinner at the idea of it but in the backs of our minds we knew we’d just signed up for something we would probably regret.
Although we were bound by PKG law to try and complete the thousand anyway, we wanted a good cause to do it for as we thought we might be able to raise some money for this craziness. It quickly became obvious that we should try to raise more funding for Naoki and his family to cover their hospital fees from the Summer and so our planning was complete.

Six months later and I’m standing in a chilly converted warehouse gym known as OLF, or the Optimal Life Fitness Centre, in East London. I’m excited and glad that we’re about to begin the challenge and as I look around I see nervous smiles, focused eyes, chalked hands, people taping their fingers and everyone making last minute preparations in the area they had chosen to face this beast. Everyone’s plan is slightly different and everyone’s training was slightly different but what is the same for all of us is that we’re staring down the barrel at 1,000 muscle ups each. I think it’s fair to say that 95% of the human population couldn’t execute a single muscle up and here we were, planning on doing 1,000. Each. Our team of four had grown to a team of eight over the months and it was time for us all to get this underway.

The highly anticipated start was a relief in some ways and made me smile not just because I was with my friends facing another crazy challenge but because the big build up only lasted about 10 seconds as we all jumped up and grabbed the bar and did no more than three or four muscle ups each, before dropping down and resting. This was a strategic and tactical move that we’d all seemed to agree on for pacing yourself was going to be the key to completion.

We were on the way and what follows from here is a very one sided account as I have little idea of what went on around me for the next sixteen hours…

255 muscle ups and 1 hour, 49 minutes.
I’m feeling good, hands are taped, chalked and still in one piece. I briefly think about the 300 challenge which I did quite a while ago and remember it took me 2 hours and 11 minutes last time. Even though this is a very different kind of challenge, I think I’d like to beat that by just a minute or so to improve my time but I don’t want to push myself too much.

300 muscle ups and 2 hours, 9 minutes.
Two minutes faster than last time and I’m still feeling not too bad. I had begun today by doing three muscle ups in a row then dropping and resting a whole minute before doing the same again and repeating the process. It was working well but I was beginning to feel that it wasn’t going to be long before I failed to complete a set of three.

363 muscle ups and I switch to doubles.
I’m over a third of the way and change my pattern to two every minute. A few of the guys had also completed the 300 challenge within the two hour thirty minute time limit and I was happy to take a two minute break to shake their hands and congratulate them.

401 muscle ups and 3 hours, 3 minutes.
It had been building up for a while but so slowly and steadily that I hadn’t really heard my body telling me that I felt a bit sick. Whether it was low blood sugar, plain hunger or just the sustained effort, I needed a break and food. It was worrying to stop because I feared I might seize up, get cold and find it hard to restart but I had to deal with this feeling now or I might not be able to continue at all.

500 muscle ups and 4 hours, 54 minutes.
I’m halfway there and the break had been perfectly timed. I had sat down for 20 minutes, eaten a beef burger that had been grilled at 6am that morning and munched on some biscuits, had some tea, some water, an apple and half a banana. At first I felt cold but the food really helped me to feel better and ward off the sick feeling. Five minutes on the rowing machine had warmed me back up but not tired me out and the time between 400 and 500 went quite quickly. Time, in general, was moving quickly. I couldn’t believe we’d been going for almost five hours already and my original goal of completing the challenge in around ten hours was still on track.

600 muscle ups and 6 hours, 39 minutes.
And there it was. The good times were over, the fun had stopped and everything was not ok. It was far from ok. I had some pain in my elbows as the tendons were becoming inflamed and every repetition was beginning to hurt. Shirley and Andy had taped, and re-taped my hands countless times and I was resting more and more between sets. It was time to be honest with myself. 600 sounds like a lot and on any other day it would be, but when you’re left with 400 muscle ups, you are far from done. This is where the line was drawn and it was becoming obvious which techniques worked best, whose training methods had been most effective for this challenge and just how much we wanted to finish this.
I decided that if the pain got much worse, then I would think about stopping but right now I was going to keep going, one muscle up at a time, and one minute at a time.

700 muscle ups.
I have no record on my paper as to when I reached 700. It wasn’t a relief or significant enough to remember to make a note and I just remember the pain in my elbows had become worse. Andy had managed to tape my hands up in a way that the tape seemed to fuse together and hold tight for the rest of the night, which I was very grateful for, and Joe had just finished his last muscle up of the 1,000 which was a fantastic moment and gave us all hope that the end was near. Joe’s plan had been to abandon any kind of timing and just feel it all out. When he felt good, he did a bit more, when he felt bad, he did a bit less and by listening to his body throughout the whole process and sticking with a technique that worked for him, he blasted through the whole thing in around eight and a half hours – an incredible achievement.

There were many peaks and valleys throughout the day and if I could have started again I decided I would have increased my pace during the peaks and just relaxed a bit in the valleys to reserve my strength. I had been too regimented in my approach and by doing three each time then resting a whole minute, I was pushing too much when I was tiring but not really doing very much at all whilst I was fresh.

Andy had also finished his 300 reps around this time and this was a fantastic achievement. His original plan had been to try and hit 100, and when he got there he just kept going and then he aimed for 200. When he informed me that he had to leave soon to attend his work’s Christmas dinner, but felt like he could have perhaps reached 300, I couldn’t help but ask him which he would remember more in ten years time… doing 300 muscle ups or going to his work dinner, and sure enough after some thought, he stayed and polished off all 300 with good form. We were all really happy for him and proud to see him reach his goal. You can read his version of events and check out more photos of the day here.

800 muscle ups and 10 hours, 20 minutes.
I’d lost any sense of time and progress had all but stopped. I would walk up to the bar, jump and grab, pull up, lean forward and push only to experience pain in my elbows above and beyond any I’ve felt before and on the way down it hurt just as much, if not more. I would drop, walk around for a minute or two, come back and repeat the process. It was murder. Constant pain, fatigue, tightness and the feeling of never getting any closer to finishing enveloped me. The problem with this kind of thing is that the more time you take, the more the magnitude of everything is multiplied. As the hours pass and the body is denied rest and forced to work on and on, the mind is also driven to places it hasn’t been before. I knew this moment would come but wasn’t sure when and it was fast becoming just as much of a mental battle as a physical one.

900 muscle ups and 13 hours.
It had taken me almost three hours to do the last 100 muscle ups and I was aware that there was a good chance it could take longer than that for the last 100. The pain hadn’t increased but it was ever present and substantial. The difference was that now it hurt all of the time, not just during the muscle up. I couldn’t fully bend my arms due to the tight muscles, my neck and traps felt like knotted lead and oddly enough my abs were destroyed. I walked around and began laughing to myself at how ridiculous the whole situation was. Why do we do this? Why am I continuing to endure this? I could just stop now, go home and sleep. Nobody would think any less of me, it’s not a matter of ego… it was something else. Despite feeling the way I did and being in the amount of pain I was in, it was a rush to feel so alive and be aware of it.
Yao was a massive help in massaging my elbows, neck and shoulders a few times during the night, which would relieve the worst of the pain for about twenty minutes or so before everything returned to the way it was. The simple cups of tea from Naomi, Tracey and Shirley were the sweetest and greatest things I was sure I’d ever tasted and with nothing else to be happy about, I really began to appreciate and enjoy the little things… like a short text message from a friend wishing me luck or a few words from one of the other guys.

Chris had just finished his last rep of his hard fought campaign across the scaffolding from me and it was another landmark moment for the guys still fighting on as we were getting closer to reaching the end too. Another brief pause to congratulate him was followed by another trip to the bar to grind a repetition out.

It was also around now that I came out of my bubble a little bit and looked around. For the past couple of hours I’d heard a rhythmic pounding in the background somewhere every minute or so and hadn’t thought much of it even though I knew what had been happening. Brian was in the background with a sledgehammer and was smashing a tractor tyre to pieces with it every minute or so. I found out he was aiming for 1,000 tyre slams with the hammer and could see it was taking a toll on him. I’d been so consumed in my own little world that I hadn’t realised just what all the noise had been about. We talked for a few minutes then went back to work but there seemed to have been an unspoken agreement made during our brief moment together… we’d both finish this. He would hammer, I would do a muscle up. I would do a muscle up, he would hammer. When one went for it, the other one did and it helped a great deal to work with someone even if it was just for a little while. I was alone on the scaffolding at this point as the others had either finished, stopped or were taking a break and as the minutes and hours passed I could taste the end. We both could.

1,001 muscle ups and 15 hours, 45 minutes.
The last 30 had been slow, but knowing I didn’t have to hold anything back now, I was speeding up a little toward the end. Words of encouragement and the steady music in the background which had gone from death metal to hip-hop to movie soundtracks and back, three times, helped to see me through and I remember the moment where I had three reps left. No matter what happened, I would finish. It would all be over soon. With one left, I wandered around and knew that as always, this was never going to finish on 1,000 and that there is always enough left in you for one more repetition to dedicate to the others around me to thank them for their support and to the other guys who had been battling alongside me. We start together, we finish together, as always.
It was also for everyone who had donated over the last couple of weeks, whether it had been in blood or otherwise. The thousandth rep and the one after were done back to back and as I dropped down there wasn’t much to feel. Nothing really changed but as I was congratulated by the people around me I knew a lot had changed inside. I needed food, water and rest more than anything else but I just wanted to sit down for a minute and breathe. I spent the next half hour slowly eating a Chinese takeaway that Annty and Shirley had gone to pick up a while ago. Nothing else had been open at that time of night but nothing could have tasted better, I was sure of it.

After Annty carefully cut me out of my taped up hands, I lay on the gym floor wearing all of my clothes and drifted in and out of a light sleep. I woke up to congratulate Jun for finishing his last rep and went back to lying down again as standing up was too much effort. Everything from the waist upwards ached more than it has ever before and my muscles were so tight I felt like I was wearing a straight jacket. Not everyone had finished so we opted to stay overnight on the gym floor and try to get some sleep but a never ending hunger kept me awake and munching on food on the floor. At some point I passed out and came around as the last few reps of the day were being polished off at 9am, twenty-three hours after the first few were completed.

It was all over. Was it worth it?

My muscle up technique probably hasn’t improved and I doubt my max reps have increased much, if it all. I won’t be stronger after this challenge. My tendons and ligaments are only just feeling normal now, eleven days later and I still get tired quickly from exercise.
It wasn’t functional or efficient but yes, it was worth it. In the same way running a marathon is worth it. Just like winning a heavyweight title is worth it. Training is for something and you train to meet a goal or to get closer to where you want to be. If all we ever did was train when we were fresh and have short, effective sessions then yes, we would progress quickly but to what end? Where is the challenge? Where is the doubt? Where is the growth?
Knowing that I can complete 1,000 muscle ups back to back in one session and more importantly that I can push through levels of sustained pain that I hadn’t experienced before, made it worth it. Without chaos, nothing evolves.

My biggest thanks go to everyone who came to support us at OLF, from BJ and Tommy for letting us use the gym and to Julie for giving us a lift in the car bright and early in the morning. To Naomi, Tracey, Shirley and Annty for keeping the kettle full and the never ending support and to Brian for keeping the rhythm with his hammer. Thanks to Andy for helping me tape my hands and to CJ for dropping by to offer his support. Thanks to Yao and Bruno for their massages and encouragement. Thanks to Peter and Alli for dropping by later to continue the support. Thanks to Joe for the bite of chocolate cheese cake and for showing us the way and to Chris for generally battling through but mostly for his ‘power hour’ with Disturbed that lifted the mood. Thanks to everyone who donated in muscle ups or otherwise but my greatest thanks to all the guys who were next to me on the scaffolding, it would’ve been a far tougher challenge without you.

Until the next crazy challenge, be sure to check out Andy's version of events and photographs here


Friday, June 18, 2010


It's my birthday next week and I've been lucky enough to receive an early present in the form of a 24kg pro-grade kettlebell from my girlfriend. I've known about kettlebells and had a vague interest in them for a while but have never really had the time or inclination to find out more about them until recently.

So a few months ago I ran a Parkour taster session with Dan at a new gym called OLF, or Optimal Life Fitness, in Hither Green, South London. On the day, we met BJ, who runs the place with his business partner, and a bunch of other guys who had come for the opening day to try Parkour, Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Kettlebell sport or any of the other sessions being introduced that day.

Now I'm not a big fan of gyms or places where you can go and watch TV, or enjoy air-conditioned treadmill sessions whilst listening to muzak or pan pipes. Give me a cold, dark, abandoned carpark with a rusty pipe and a weight vest and I'll be more at home.. but OLF? Well, this was no ordinary gym.

A converted warehouse, the first thing you notice when you walk in is the towering scaffold structure that is bolted in to the side wall and submerged 6ft in to the concrete to support even the biggest guys swinging around on it.. quickly followed by the climbing rope hanging from the rafters, a power rack, some benches and an armada of kettlbells. Not to mention the Bulgarian wrestling bags, rings, gladiator walls, straps and, well, the list goes on.

This is a gym. In the same way Gym Jones is a gym. And this is the home of the Trojans Lifting Club.

The taster was successful enough to allow for a regular Parkour session there that I've been running and I've enjoyed getting to know BJ and Tommy there who are both very intelligent in their approach to training, and strong because of it. It was BJ that introduced me to kettlebells and some basic weightlifting skills and I've been hooked ever since.

Fast forward a couple of months and here I am with my very own kettlebell and feeling humbled by this monster sitting next to me. Just picking the kettlebell up makes me think and when you actually start to try the basic swings and techniques you struggle to understand how someone can repeat this for a few minutes, never mind ten, which would be the typical amount of time you'd be swinging this beast for in a kettlebell competition.

So I'll start from scratch. I aim to begin with the basic two-handed swing and then progress on to the one-handed variations, switching between hands and repeating until I feel comfortable before experimenting with the cleans and snatches that these training tools are so famous for. Oh and of course, the infamous Turkish Get Up.

It's going to be a busy month ahead with next week in Leicester, then out to Nicaragua for a week followed by Brazil for a fortnight for teaching and training, so I won't get much chance to use the kettlebell until after that, but it'll be waiting for me when I get back.

And I can't wait!

Results and thoughts to follow..


Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Training and Teaching in 2010

So it's been a while..

I’ve posted a few entries on the Parkour Generations blog but the main reason I’ve been so quiet on here is that when I do something, I like to do it properly and I’ve just not had the time or the motivation to update this on a regular basis. But, after taking a few trips recently and speaking to people from Mexico, Copenhagen, Rome, Ohio and various other places around the world, I’ve realised that more people read this thing than I could have imagined, so it’s to give this blog a bit more effort.

Now just because I’ve not been updating things here doesn’t mean things haven’t been happening. More than I can remember has changed since my last update and this entry will be more of a lengthy catch up than a discussion about anything in particular.

In future, I’m going to post smaller updates with what I’m doing, what I’m thinking about, what I’m training, where I’m going, what I’ve learned there and generally just make a little more effort to share my journey with all of you crazy people who choose to read this babble!

So, to the point and to the most important thing.. the reason I started writing in the first place, Parkour. Things here in the UK are huge now and the number of practitioners just keeps rising worldwide; but rather than fragmenting and growing too quickly, the worldwide community just keeps on becoming better and better, with more organisations keeping things.. well, organised. The vast majority of communities are doing their best to ensure that Parkour is spreading in a positive way in their own regions. With very few exceptions, I’m happy and proud with the way Parkour is developing on a worldwide scale.

On a more personal level, I’m satisfied with my training at the moment and whilst some things have changed drastically, others have remained the same or have been tweaked just slightly to continue challenging me.

One of the biggest changes I’ve made is that I’ve started lifting weights.

Adding resistance for upper body exercises is easy, you can take away one arm for all of the basic exercises, jump on the rings or train gymnastic techniques, or elevate your body. But for the legs? They’re that much stronger that it’s quite hard to add a great deal of resistance using just your bodyweight.

So my first (slightly reluctant) experience with weightlifting was maybe eight or nine months ago but it’s only in these past two or three that I’ve been taking it much more seriously after moving in to a new house and having access to an Olympic weight set.

I’ll admit it, I was wrong and I was uneducated about weightlifting. I realise now that used properly, weights can be extremely functional in increasing strength and especially in targeting that all important posterior chain.

HA! I told you so!” – I can hear them now. That’s great. I don’t care.

So for around three months I’ve been including some heavy lifts in my training schedule and twice per week I squat, deadlift, overhead press and slip on the bag for some heavy pulls. I spent a long time researching before I touched the iron and thought I owed it to myself to try it and see what would happen. My biggest fear was gaining useless bulk and affecting my explosive power, and I knew the importance of muscular endurance for those long traverses, so I didn’t want to lose that either.

I can say now that both my power and endurance have improved since I started adding more resistance to my training and I feel much more complete. I struggle to describe it in one word but I feel much more comfortable with impacts and more protected in general from the forces generated by the movements in Parkour.

Of course, an increase in strength gives you more potential for power and endurance too so I’ve been careful in balancing things and trying to progress in all directions at the same time, which surprisingly hasn’t been as tough as I thought it would be as long as I mix the training up regularly.

It all seems so obvious now but it’s often hard to change when you’re stuck in your ways and reluctant to risk a step backwards. In the end though, there isn’t a sport in the world, endurance based or not, where the top level athletes in that field don’t lift heavy to make gains. Sprinters are some of the most explosive athletes on the planet and they squat twice their bodyweight. Lance Armstrong? An elite level endurance athlete? Also squats his saddle-sore ass off with heavy iron. I had to get over myself and accept that iron is just another form of resistance, and increased resistance is what you need for strength gains.

The way I think about it now is that I’ve spent five years doing pushup marathons, thousands of lunges, thousands of squats, miles of quadrupedie and traversing so muscular endurance was the primary focus for so long that I forgot the old phrase – ‘the best exercise for you is the one you’re not doing.’

I have to admit, it felt strange to do just five reps of anything and feel destroyed after just thirty minutes of training and I almost felt like I was cheating something, but this was the bizarre new world of strength training for Parkour and it’s become a good friend of mine since then.

So my training plan at the moment sounds something like this –

  • Mondays and Fridays I’ll squat, deadlift, overhead press and do weighted pullups with as much weight as I can handle for five sets of five reps. If I don’t have access to the weights then I’ll do other heavy resistance work such as rope climbing with the vest, one-arm chinup training, levers, pistols with the vest holding a big rock or some other suitable form of resistance training.
  • On Wednesdays I run, jump and climb as hard as I can with a mix of plyometric drills, max precisions, strides and sprints, muscle ups, double tap drills, climbups and generally work on my explosive power with some time spent working towards breaking new jumps.
  • Tuesdays, Thursdays and on the weekends I work on light movement drills. I play, I stretch, I balance and try to be creative and vary those days as much as I can, working on whatever feels right at the time. Some clever chap would probably call them active rest days but they’re just good fun to me.

What’s that, you say? No quadrupedie? Where’s the muscular endurance work? Of course I still see a need for endurance marathons and training to failure because after all, this isn’t a competitive sport – I’m not trying to be the best athlete I can and win gold, I’m trying to grow as a person and push myself and if that means sacrificing performance then that’s fine, because performance is not everything. So once or twice per month if I’m away from home or just feel like something different then I’ll work through a long quadrupedie block, pushup ladder, lunge marathon, traverse to failure or something similar. It still has a place to me but its priority has just shifted for me at this time in my training, where I feel my weaknesses lie in other areas.

Training and teaching are two completely different things and it’s been proven time and time again that sometimes the ‘best’ practitioners can make the worst teachers in any practice, and Parkour is no exception. Teaching is another skill that has to be learned and improved constantly so I’ve really been enjoying that challenge too.

Finding ways to pass on the values and techniques of Parkour to a huge variety of students with different learning styles is challenging and forces you to understand everything on a much deeper level rather than just having a superficial familiarity with things. I also feel incredibly lucky to travel to other countries and teach but it comes with a huge responsibility since what you do out there can drastically change a Parkour community and the way they train forever. The result though is an incredibly rewarding experience when you see a student shine and do something they never imagined was possible for them.

Here in London, Parkour Generations is going from strength to strength and with our ADAPT course becoming increasingly popular, we’ve been busy delivering the teaching qualification to different parts of the UK. From next month, we take the show on the road with the first of many international trips to deliver the qualification in Brazil and ensure that, globally, continues to be taught and spread safely around the world, preserving the core values whilst encouraging groups to maintain their individuality and unique approach.

ADAPT itself was meticulously built from scratch by the founders of the discipline who realised that they had a duty to ensure that Parkour, Freerunning, Art Du Deplacement – whatever you wish to call it – has a standard of coaching and that a new student has the option to choose a coach who is recognised by the founders of the discipline to be competent. A good coach must deliver safe and accurate information to their students and set a good example, they must live the discipline, not just know it.

To summarise, teaching and training are both going well and I love my life and all its challenges. Typing this, I’m thirty-seven thousand feet in the air travelling at five-hundred and fifty miles per hour, half way between Toronto and London (and able to tell you that thanks to the handy computer built in to the headrest in front).

After spending the last week in Ohio running a seminar with the Yamakasi and a bunch of our guys, there’s one thing I can’t get out of my head and that’s the increasing size of this huge international family of practitioners all working together to improve ourselves, each other and push the boundaries of what was previously believed possible.

We start together, we finish together.