The COVID19 pandemic and lockdown have been going on for several weeks now and as we continue to endure this, several things have become clear to most of us. First, this will not be over and we will not return to our normal lives for a very long time, if ever. Second, if we’re going to survive this pandemic and this lock-down, we need to get or remain healthy, and one of the best ways to do that is to follow an exercise program. Yet, the gyms are closed and most people do not have equipment. We are now barraged all day by home workout programs and techniques, yet where does one start? Third, and perhaps most importantly, in order to manage the stress and survive these challenging times, we need to practice mental focus and living in the moment. Yet, how do we do this? We have more distractions and more time to be distracted than ever. What should we do? Enter Zen Mind, Strong Body, by Al Kavadlo.
As I think about my own mental and physical health during this lock-down, I am encouraged by the fact that I remain committed to and rewarded by my daily calisthenics workouts, and I am motivated to continue them. I am also frustrated by my inability to be consistent with meditation and my perceived failure to live in the moment and the here and now. My understanding of the importance of meditation during this time seems to be equaled only by my inability to stick with it. In considering these things I was reminded of Zen Mind, Strong Body, which I first read quite some time ago. I was thinking that it might offer some useful and specific information for navigating these challenging times where we need to stay strong and focused and to be consistent with our exercise, strength training and eating habits, and to be able to screen out all the depressing and negative information that seems to be everywhere all the time. So I re-read the book, and it was a very good move.
I gave up the gym about 18 years ago, so the concept of working out at home is a natural one to me. But I think for many people, from those who don’t do any form of strength training at all, to those who rely on weights and machines, the idea of a home workout is foreign and confusing. At the very least it might seem impossible to get a good workout at home. Some may even give up.
But I say that is oh so wrong, and there is no better time than now to do this, and Zen Mind, Strong Body can be the perfect guide to developing the right attitude toward strength training, eating, and living in the moment. As Al said in the book, “Your body reacts to the signals you give it every single day, so stop waiting for things to fall into place and start taking action today.”
At the beginning of the book, Al describes a pivot point that he came to some years ago because of frustration with the mainstream fitness industry and its empire of marketing and false information. At the time he was advised by a friend to start a blog and to make videos, to “be a solution to the problem”. Once he got his head around the concept, he was motivated to develop content in this at-the-time new and burgeoning scene. Al has been a dedicated blogger and Youtuber (in addition to authoring several books and leading exercise seminars and certification programs and being a personal trainer) ever since, and this book represents a collection of 26 of his articles.
I’ve been familiar with Al’s work for about 10 years now, and I can tell you that during that time about the only thing that has changed about him is his facial hair configuration. (Which actually changes fairly often.) He has been totally consistent in his message, his instruction, the example he sets, his physique and his attitude. There has never been anything like “Al goes keto!” or “Al has decided to go back to weightlifting” or “Al Kavadlo did 100 push ups a day for 30 days and here’s what happened.” This is why a collection of 26 different articles written over the span of years can fit together perfectly into a single book. This speaks volumes.
What I like best about Zen Mind, Strong Body is not that it is a manual for exercising and programming workouts and focusing the mind. It’s not. There are no prescriptions here, no formulas or algorithms or diet programs. There is no instruction on how to meditate or advice on how many minutes a day to do it. Rather, this entire book is one Zen strong-man body of work. I realized in re-reading the book that I need NOT feel conflicted or ashamed that I’ve been consistent in exercise but not at meditation. Rather, I realized, maybe exercise and meditation can actually be the same thing! What an exhilarating and satisfying thought. Maybe my exercise program IS my meditation. They are different things and yet they are the same thing. A Zen mind is a strong body and and a zen body is a strong mind. Like Al says in the book “when you are completely focused on your training, the division between body and mind breaks down and everything else seems to fall away.” This is just what we need in these uncertain times.
One of the things I really like about the work of Al Kavadlo and his brother Danny, is that they are BS busters. The fitness industry is loaded with BS and dogma. BS makes the fitness industry a lot of money, just like sick people who need medication make the health care system a lot of money. So we should just pony up and take our pills, right? Wrong! Al and Danny will have none of this. One area of dogma very common to the fitness industry is that you will not make any progress unless you have specific goals and you chart your progress towards those goals. You must keep an exercise journal and write down every thing you do (and eat) every day. There is no point to any of this without a goal, so the dogma barks. I need to fit into this swimsuit by May. There is no other reason to work out. And fitting into this swimsuit is all that is important and I will only do exercises relevant to this goal and will quit when I fit into the swimsuit. Right? Probably not. Here’s what Al says: “The goals themselves aren’t really important, but working towards something specific might help you stay focused. After all, goals are just a fantasy; the training that you do today is real… the journey matters more than the destination.” Maybe the journey IS the destination. Hm….
Interestingly, Al Kavadlo says mighty and powerful things while remaining humble and happy and, frankly, pretty small. As in, not big. This is not an accident and it speaks directly to me. Similar to Al, I got interested in building muscle as a scrawny teenager who wanted to get better at sports and defend myself. So I got my first weight set made of plastic and sand and started reading Muscle and Fitness. And naturally I started doing the workouts advocated by Arnold, Frank and Lou. Never mind that I didn’t know what I was doing and didn’t realize that these workouts require pharmaceutical support. The point became clear very quickly: You must get as big as possible. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the whole point to bodybuilding is to isolate parts of the body and make them as big as possible. Function be damned. Bigness is IT. I understand only now that bigness really wasn’t what I wanted, but that concept was lost in the details of the workouts and thinking about bicep peaks and deltoid mass (produced by “hitting” the deltoids from all angles, of course). When I finally found calisthenics at the age of 45 I finally began to understand that the body works as a whole and isolation works against this, and most important, bigness is not only not important, it’s also not attractive and not useful. Fortunately for me this idea exists only as a dialog or argument inside my own head. But Al has an audience, and has to face criticism on a regular basis that he “does really cool and awesome things but isn’t jacked enough” (I paraphrase). But if you understand Al, you know that non-bigness is partly the point. Getting strong but not huuuuge while staying focused and mindful is like, as you will see in a moment, getting lean without dieting. Hm….
On diet, Al says the following. (Get your pens and paper so you can write down every detail here. This is the diet you will want to follow to get lean, so pay attention): “Personally, I follow a very simple diet: I eat when I am hungry and stop when I am full. I avoid mindless snacking and stay away from processed food.” Oh man. Oh man. I. Love. This. No powders? No supplements? No counting? No compressed eating window? No macro-nutrient group avoidance? No weighing my food? No tracking? No way! Further, “People love to ask me how many grams of protein I consume each day or how I time my carbohydrate intake, but the truth is I don’t concern myself with such trivialities.” That said, Al does recommend all things in moderation, defends the almighty peanut, and does provide a list of approved foods. They are, in order of importance, vegetables, fruit, roots, seeds, nuts, nut-butters, grass-fed beef, free-range chicken and other poultry, fish, pork, lamb, eggs, olive oil, dairy, teas, coffee and red wine. Please stop to contemplate for a moment that maybe all this attention to the details and body parts and objectified components of what we eat and when (that the “wellness” empire is built upon) are totally unnecessary. Maybe things like pandemics and other semi-apocalyptic events help to show us that what we’ve been obsessed with when we weren’t under constant threat might have been, well, a waste of time and resources. Maybe it’s time to focus on what’s truly important.
Al says the best way to get lean is simply to “eat foods that are as close to their original state as possible”. Again, think long and hard about this small yet powerful statement. There is nothing here about amounts or timing or nutrient ratios or weighing or counting. Yet, this is his advice on getting lean. Just eating the right foods and nothing much else can get us lean. How can this be? Because the point is if you eat natural whole foods, your body will receive the nutrition that it needs and will not be compelled to eat more or overeat or eat in response to things other that nutritional need and true hunger. Your body will naturally regulate its own weight and composition. Eating the right foods, only enough, in response to true hunger renders “dieting” totally unnecessary. This could not be a more profound BS-busting statement. All you need to know about diet can be written on the back of a business card.
In the fitness space cheat days are quite common. Epic cheat days are the stuff of legend. The script goes like this: You adhere strictly to your diet and workout routine so you can get ripped and jacked. You weigh and measure everything that goes into your mouth so you can be sure to “fit your macros”, which have been calculated for you by an app or web site. Your “macros” fit you perfectly and are the precise grams of fat, carbohydrate and protein that you need for your age, sex, exercise habits, body size and goals. If what you eat “fits your macros” (IIFYM, or “If It Fits Your Macros”) as nicely as it fits into your mouth, you are good to go. This is hard work and requires dedication and concentration and above all, WILL POWER. You must not be weak and you must not crumble. Except for one time per week. You can be weak and crumble one time per week. It’s called a “cheat meal”. During the cheat meal anything goes. Into your mouth, that is. Captain Krunch, Ho Ho’s, Ring Dings, Ding Dongs, Fling Flings, cheez whiz, gee whiz, super-sized all of the above, Big Gulps, and a bucket of Skittles. Some bros are so epic that they make cheat meals into Cheat Days. Cheat Daze I tell you! The goal here is to get to 20,000 calories or more without necessarily having to go to the hospital. Does this sound like a good idea? Should marriages have cheat days? Probably not. And yet, we are all human and while we want to be lean and healthy, hot dogs taste good dog gone it! So why not recognize that we are human and be human and have a donut every now and then but not make it epic and not call attention to it and not attach it to the concept of weakness or try to work off its calories or regard it as a small failure of will power. It just is, and if it just is but just isn’t often, it IS, well, just fine. Thanks Al.
Another dogma in the strength training and gettin’ ripped space is that you “do cardio”. What does that mean? It used to be called aerobics and it’s often done on a treadmill or StairMaster or some other 900 lb $2000 piece of equipment that will end up as a clothes drying rack. And if you have really arrived, you do your cardio on a machine that sits in your bedroom and has an internet connection and one or more holograms of people shouting encouragement at you to pedal that bike nowhere while you pretend to be in a class with other them. But again, aside from energy and financial expenditure and clique-ism, what is the point? The point is to do steady state exercise that gets your heart rate up to a certain point (hence the term “cardio”), which supposedly means that you are in the “fat burning zone”. Most people like to get their cardio “out of the way” by doing it first thing in the morning. Is more cardio better? But check this out. Al Kavadlo does not do cardio and never will. He also ran a marathon and did a triathlon and speaks fondly of both things in Zen Mind, Strong Body. How is this possible? It’s all in how you look at and what your intentions are. In addition to being strong, people need to be in condition, able to sustain a strenuous activity for a period of time beyond a minute or two. What’s more, people need to be able to run. When my son was little he was known for making interesting and humorous observations. One of them was “old people never run!” He was simply making an observation that struck him as strange. Yet, it’s pregnant with meaning.
In many ways running and swimming are the ultimate body-weight exercises. They are natural, they can save your life, and if practiced regularly, can help you be very healthy. Sure, these activities can burn fat, but that’s not really the point. The point is, in a Zen mind and body, running is a good thing and helps contribute to the overall picture of good health and a focused mind.
Mastering This Moment
Zen Mind, Strong Body has all we need to master this moment and survive this time. You can buy colorful padded dumbbells if you like, but all you really need is a little floor space, a desire to master your own body weight, and a focused mind. This fantastic book will help you with these.