To most people, pain and injury are synonymous. This week’s episode questions that assumption. Host, Peter McGraw, talks to physical therapist and creator of the Merrill Method, Charlie Merrill, about his radical new perspective on thinking about pain. They talk about a wide array of topics, including the difference between pain and injury, the pursuit of joyful activities, and the potential benefits of sprinting. If you stick around to the bonus material at the end, Peter and Charlie talk about working out to look good naked.
Listen to Episode #13 here:
Pain, Injury, And Moving With Joy
In this episode, I talked to my physical therapist about a wide array of topics including his radical new perspective on thinking about pain. We also discussed the difference between pain and injury, the pursuit of joyful activities and the potential benefits of sprinting. One thing to note, at some point I reference guys, but please know that the advice is useful for women and men. The bonus material is a fun conversation with my guest about working out to look good naked. I hope you enjoy the episode. Let’s get started.
Our guest is Charlie Merrill. The creator of the Merrill Method. Charlie is a Boulder-based physical therapist who specializes in multiple treatments to help his patients restore mobility, reduce pain, rehabilitate an injury or simply live a healthier more fit life. Welcome, Charlie.
Thanks for having me, Pete. I’m excited to be here to chat with you.
What does it mean to you to live a remarkable life? When you hear that phrase, what does that mean?
What comes up for me is full hedonism and maybe take it down a notch. There are some components of finding things in your life that give you joy and trying to do as many of those as you can. If I drill down, it’s being challenged in different aspects of my life, both professionally from a business standpoint, with my family and with my kids, being challenged in that way. In athletics, finding that edge of always trying to accomplish new goals, learn new skills and learn more about your health. If I can fill those three different variables and feel like I’m growing and I’m challenging myself, that feels where I want to be. I would define that as a remarkable life. You can throw traveling there too to help with that growth process.
I have sent you an email once asking about supplements. You sent me a way more thoughtful response than I would have sent. It was fun because it was a little cheeky. You’re like, “Instead of taking vitamin D, I will go outside with my shirt off for twenty minutes. Instead of vitamin C, I’ll drink margaritas. It prevents scurvy.” One of the things that you closed with was this idea about pursuing a growth path. That has always resonated with me. When you have a choice, it’s not a matter of choosing necessarily a path that’s easier, but one that’s going to allow you to flourish and develop, whether it be in the professional box, in the relationship box or in the physical box. With my first, Anthony Full who’s my barber, I told the story about the movie Limitless. It’s a Bradley Cooper movie from a bunch of years ago where he takes a drug that makes him limitless.
What is interesting about what they did with that script is he takes this drug that makes him a genius, more or less. You were able to see how he systematically and quickly changes his life as a result of it. One of the first things that he does is tidy up his house. One of the next things he does is he gets a haircut. Anthony and I talked about how transformational a haircut is. The third thing that he does is he starts working out. There’s a scene of him doing sit-ups in a gym. If you were a genius, what are the things that you would do to make your life better? One of the first things is to work on your fitness and health. That brings us here. It’s part of the reason why I chose you to be an early guest here.
Allow me to talk for a moment about my perspective on health and fitness and then I want to get your perspective. I ask what does it mean to live a remarkable life. My personal belief is that there are multiple paths to living a remarkable life. Any one path that might be good for one person might not be good for another person. You mentioned family. This is a show which for now or forever someone has decided, “I don’t want to have a family. I’m delaying this and that.” That’s a path for a remarkable life for you, but it might not be for someone else.
When you also think of it as family, it doesn’t have to be kids. It could be family in a larger sense like community and friendships. All those things fall into a similar relationship bucket.
You and another path or creative paths and as you jokingly mentioned pleasure, that’s the path in living a remarkable life. Whatever path you decide to walk, I believe this notion of health and fitness is foundational. That is having a strong body and then as a result, a strong mind, a healthy immune system. I’m saying getting over a terrible illness. Having this notion of good health and fitness is a foundational element regardless of what the other path is that you decide to walk. If you’re pursuing a remarkable life, one of the first things after your haircut and tidying up your house is not going to be supplements. I wanted to start by talking to you about the basics of health and fitness. What are the foundational ideas of health? We’ve talked a lot about this stuff. I’ve read a lot about this stuff. One of the things I like about you is I feel that you have a grounded reasonable view of this topic. I’m hoping you will prove me right.
The word that comes to me is moderation. That’s the first word that comes to me when you ask that question. You think of these factors that you hear people talk about. One might be sleep, food, exercise, sex or travel. You look at all those things and you say, “I need to be sleeping eight hours a night. I need to be eating super clean all the time. I need to have my exercise dialed.” It starts to feel like a lot of pressure. It starts to almost feel like the opposite of hedonism, where all of a sudden, you have all these expectations of yourself. It sounds like work and it’s a lot of pressure. The reason I said the word moderation is because all those things are important, but if you put too much pressure on any of them, it starts to become imbalanced. There are going to be nights where you get five hours of sleep because you’re working too much. There are going to be times when you have a crappier diet because you’re traveling or whatever. Part of feeling good about your health and wellness is that you’re not judging yourself too harshly for messing up in any one of those areas, but you’re rather trying to do all of them pretty well. If you can do all of those things well, you’re going to be a remarkable person.
Let’s isolate these. Let’s talk about the first three because I think those are the ones that people most associate with health and fitness. That’s sleeping, eating, and exercise. Some form of rest and recovery more generally, eating and exercising. My reaction to what you’re saying is this sounds like a guy who works with a lot of highly motivated borderline elite athletes in Boulder, Colorado. The notion of moderation sounds reasonable like, “Don’t be hard on yourself because you didn’t get eight great hours of sleep and you decided to have a burger instead of a salad with salmon.” Don’t beat yourself up about that kind of thing.Part of feeling good about your health and wellness is that not judging yourself too harshly. Click To Tweet
Let me be clear about that. If you’re a pro athlete, the rules are different and you’re signing up for a different reality with regard to your moderation at that point. That said, if you follow tennis, you see a guy like Federer who lives his life in a more robust way than a guy like Djokovic, who lives like a monk. Both those guys are extremely talented tennis players, but one has the belief system that he needs to live super clean and the other one has the belief system that a little bit of happiness helps his performance. It’s different for everybody but for the average person, moderation is important.
I don’t think that for the average person, moderation is the problem. Obesity rates, the amount of fast-food that people eat, their poor sleep hygiene and poor habits. Let’s take a segmented approach. Let’s take a guy who’s reading and wants to kickstart this stuff. He’s never thought about his health and fitness because he’s always been young. Now he’s heading into his 30s. His body is starting to change. He’s losing some of that youthful edge that he had. Now he’s thinking about sleep, eating and exercise. I’m curious about the basics of that in terms of foundational stuff.
You then get into the science of habit. If you’re on the other end of the continuum where you’re not using moderation because you’re extreme at the unhealthy end, then you’re starting to talk about getting into building new habits and all of those different domains. We know that habit can take a while to build. For some people, they have all this discipline and they can do all those things at once. They’re like, “I’m cleaning it up. Starting now, I’m doing all of it.” That’s hard to do. You’re talking about Limitless. You have to be a genius. I have moments in my life where I feel this flow where I’m like, “I’m killing it right now in all these different areas.” There are other moments where I feel like I’m not in that state, I can’t find it and I’m struggling. The goal in those cases is to start building habit incrementally, small bits at a time.
If you had to choose which one to start with, what would it be?
I would say start with the one that feels moderately challenging to you. Don’t start with the one that’s super easy. Don’t start with the one that feels impossible. Start with the one that’s in the middle that you feel is attainable. It’s right to your edge. It’s attainable but it’s not going to be impossible for you to do. Start with that one knowing that you can do the easy one later. Start building some success so you feel good about yourself and then tackle the one that feels a little bit bigger later. If that’s food, save that. Maybe start to make incremental changes around the edges. Nail sleep if that feels like it’s within your wheelhouse.
I wouldn’t have guessed that answer.
As a social scientist, you may have a different perspective on that.
If I had been asked that question, I’d be like, “Get your sleep in order.” That would have been my reaction but I like the idea that you should tailor it.
You’re waiting the importance of different things. If you’re dealing with health issues, then it might be a different answer. You might say, “What’s the risk factor that’s going to improve that health issue the fastest?”
Let’s return to some of these basics of sleeping, eating and exercise. You’ve had a profound effect on my life. As an athlete, I’m always walking around with some injury, but you’ve convinced me as I’m walking around with some form of pain. I consider you much more than a physical therapist or an expert on the topic of pain. For example, you were telling me that in your practice, upwards of 80% to 90% of the clients you see who are complaining of pain have no discernible structural problem.
That’s not just in my practice, that’s across multiple studies, a large number of people.
When you think about taking your first steps to living a remarkable life, one important thing to try to tackle is the pain that you’re in, your relationship to pain and how you think about pain. In part because if you’re in pain, it affects you. It affects your immune system, happiness, behavior, feelings, thoughts and how you eat. People call it comfort food for a reason. No one eats salmon and salad as comfort food. I want you to talk a little bit about this notion of pain and give people a different perspective on how they might think about it. People who are reading may have a bad back or they’ve got a shoulder injury. I use the term injury, but they have shoulder pain or neck pain or whatever this is. How do you start thinking about this idea? Can you give a primer?
Let’s start by saying this idea that pain and soft tissue damage are not always connected. In fact, they’re rarely connected. Most people have pain in the absence of actual body injury. This is a paradigm shift that is coming but it’s very slow to work its way into society. You think of the late ‘90s tech boom. This is a massive societal and economic growth in our world. The way we look at health, medicine and pain is going to be the next growth path with regard to benefit to society and the economy. It’s such a radical paradigm shift in the way we look at and understand pain, injury and medicine in the last few years.
I wanted to share that because it’s that important and most people don’t know how that works yet. Let’s take your average person with lower back pain. 80% of people will have lower back pain at some point in their life. That pain is scary. When we have pain, the first thing we do is we catastrophize. We say, “I must be hurt. I must have a herniated disc or slipped disc. My dad or mom had a bad back. I’m not going to exercise again.” We catastrophize and it’s terrifying. Pain is scary. Knowing the rules about how pain works can help people to relate to in a different way, to understand it in a different way, to bring down fear. What we find is that if there’s less fear around fear of body and health, there’s always less pain. We’re in a pain epidemic in this country right now. One of four people are in chronic pain, depending on the stat you look at. That number is higher than cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer combined. We spend more money on pain than we spend on those three things combined. It’s a real problem. It’s a real epidemic.
It’s important for most people to know that structural injuries and soft tissue damage injuries are super rare. Usually you know if you have them because there’s some trauma, but 9 out of 10 people in my practice have no clear mechanism of injury when they come in to see me. They have no reason that their pain started. They’re walking along or they woke up and the pain started. They played basketball yesterday and the pain started the next day. They attribute it maybe to playing basketball or whatever it is. You want to be able to confirm somehow that you didn’t truly hurt yourself because that does happen, but it’s the exception rather than the rule. The more of us that know that, understand that, and can trust that, the more we’ll move through them more quickly. Our nervous system lets go of that pain experience.
It suggests a different form of treatment than what the average person would do. To me, there are two options. One is you go to a doctor and you point to some part of your body and you say, “This hurts.” That person diagnoses it with some injury and then provides some treatment for it.
The current medical model is, “Let’s look for a diagnosis. Let’s put a label on it and look to see what’s wrong.”
Whatever works nicely with an insurance-based system. You have to know that you have a ligament strain.
The biggest change in how we look at this is we know that the brain drives all pain. Whether you got hurt, broke your leg, sprained your ankle or you’ve had pain for ten years, the brain makes a decision whether that’s important enough to create pain or not, to give you a warning that something’s wrong. Knowing that the brain is making that decision and not the local soft tissue is important as it helps us reframe what’s happening when we have pain.
The other alternative to this is you avoid the pain. It’s like, “It hurts when I do this.” The joke is, “Well then, don’t do that.”
That’s the fear-based behavior change that you see with a lot of people in pain. Science supports that except for extreme cases where rest is indicated. Movement is better for you. Motion is lotion. It brings blood flow, healing and it normalizes the nervous system and reduces fear for most of us. Bed rest is old school. Crutches are old school. Some of us need crutches. If you break your leg, you need crutches, but that heals in 6 to 8 weeks. It’s predictable. Most of our soft tissue damage and injuries, our body has this remarkable capacity to heal. Unlike our car or our house, it heals. It’s amazing and we don’t trust that enough. We don’t trust it like, “My body is going to take care of this. I’m going to be okay.” That’s one reason people get stuck in pain long after soft tissue damage has healed.
I’ll give you my personal experience with this. I was turning 40 and I had a bad back for 25 years. I had hurt it playing football in high school. I would have hurt it probably anyways. It wasn’t a moment where I got hit or something like that. I was a lanky kid who grew six inches and put on 65 pounds in high school. That’s what happens. This is a common occurrence for guys with my kind of build. I was turning 40 and I was contemplating what life would be like at 70 with this back. It was a problem. It was getting to be an issue that I had trouble standing to teach for too long. I would have to sit down in class while I was teaching.
I was like, “I have to do something different.” What I decided to do was make that my number one priority in life. This is the most important thing that was affecting my life massively. The future was dark. I can’t exactly say what the magic thing I have was, but one I believe was that I took the belief that it could be healed. The fact that I thought I could heal that back. The number one thing I did was I improved my posture. Talking about habits, I had to work to start to improve my posture and improve the way I stood at that standing movement.
Your alignment and your posture, movement patterns that you didn’t feel like they were healthy.If there's less fear around fear of body and health, there's always less pain. Click To Tweet
Secondly, I started strengthening my core. I’d always heard that this was an important thing. I had always used core work as a way to manage the pain. When my back would “go out,” one of the paths to helping find some relief was to strengthen my core. I do ab and low back exercise. The third thing that I did was I started doing yoga regularly. I would go once a week to do yoga. It’s a practice that I started that I continue now, which I believe truly helps me in a variety of ways. The last thing was a coincidence. I didn’t choose to do this as a way to help my back but it was the final linchpin which was I started sprinting. At the time, I was coaching lacrosse. I was an assistant coach for the men’s lacrosse team at the University of Colorado and we brought in a strength and speed coach to work with the guys. Day one, he taught the guys how to run. I decided I wasn’t going to stand on the sideline, I was going to participate because I was still playing lacrosse at the time.
I was like, “If anyone in this field needs this, it’s this guy.” He’s teaching you proper hand technique, toe strikes, strides, the whole thing, then starting a practice around sprinting. It took a year, but all of those things together had a profound effect. Occasionally, I still have a problem that might crop up here and there, but it’s usually minor and temporary. My identity about the health of my back has been completely different since then. I go into that long-winded example in part because if I had done the two things that people normally do, which is, “Don’t test it too much. Give it some time to rest,” and whatever, that’s not helping. That’s actually hurting me because I’m losing strength. The other one is, “Let me go to this orthopedist. Let me go to this back specialist and get it diagnosed.” I got this diagnosis at one point. I’ve got some spondylosis and I’ve got all these things, but if I’m like, “Doc, what do I do about it?” There’s some chance that he goes, “We’ve made some strides when it comes to surgery.” I’m not living as good of a life if I have back surgery.
The challenge with that is it reinforces this notion that your body is broken. Your body is a problem and it needs to be fixed. Your story is brilliant because after 25 years of back pain, the assumption is, “My back must still be injured. My body must still be a problem.” We know that’s not the case. You might have had an injury when you were in college.
I re-injured it at some point when I was 32, moving some stuff.
These are normal flares that people have, but to come back to this idea that your body heals itself. Those injuries, if they were injuries in the first place, probably healed within a predictable amount of time. It’s probably 1, 2, sometimes 3 months is the longest. You are then healed but 25 years later, you still have pain. You have pain doing things that aren’t dangerous like standing and sitting. Maybe it’s dangerous in other ways, but from a physical body perspective, it’s not dangerous. Your story is great and you talked about some of the assumptions that you had that led to this bleak view of the future, which is, “My body is not going to hold up.”
You use the word believe quite a bit when you were telling the story. There’s this belief system about what my back is, what it isn’t, what’s going to happen in the future and what’s not going to happen in the future. Those stories alone are powerful. They have the power to keep you in pain for much longer than you need to be in pain. The other thing that I want to reflect on is core stability and posture. Some of these other variables that feel like they give us control of our pain and they do. I use the word placebo hesitantly because it has a stigma and negative connotation. The placebo is a variable that works and we don’t know why yet. Posture and core stability have fared poorly in the research. There’s not a great correlation between core stability and pain. There’s not a great correlation between posture and pain. It doesn’t mean there’s not some benefit to improving those things.
You look better at the beach.
At the end of the day, if your belief system is that those things are going to help, then they probably will. They somewhat playback into this notion that your body is the problem rather than your brain being the primary driver of the symptoms. Sprinting is interesting because you had a strong trust or belief that sprinting was going to be fun. It’s a joyful activity and was going to improve your health. If you can find those things in your life, especially when you’re in pain, that’s your way to tap into getting back to being active again and moving past the pain. If you have a truly bad back, sprinting is not going to be good for your back, but you sprinted now and it got better. That was your way of using a joyful activity to desensitize your nervous system. You had a strong belief that all those things were going to help and they did. Your brain decided that it was ready to let go. Your brain decided like, “I’m okay.”
I don’t want to go too deep into sprinting. I’m sure I will at some other point.
It could be dancing or whatever joyful activity.
I particularly like the idea of sprinting if you want a real test of your fitness. It helps to do it right like learning how to deadlift. What’s amazing is little kids are good sprinters and then we lose that. In PE, no one ever teaches you how to run. The way to avoid injuries when you’re a runner is to learn to run well and efficiently. You watch these long-distance runners or these sprinters. They’re absolutely incredible. Everything is completely dialed in. The issue is if you’re going out and sprinting regularly, it’s hard to not start to get in shape. If you want motivation to start eating better, start sprinting. You can be overweight and be an efficient long-distance runner. It’s hard to be an efficient sprinter when you’re terribly overweight. If you ask a guy, “Describe your perfect body. What would be the perfect body for you?” It’s 100 or 200 like Olympic sprinters.
They’re jacked, lean, confident and have swagger.
They have all those things. You should be striving for the best body that your body type can have. In an ideal perfect world, most people would describe someone who looks like Usain Bolt if you’re tall or Michael Johnson if you’re not tall.
You don’t want all your followers to go out and start sprinting. For you, that was a joyful activity. For somebody else, it might be a disaster.
It is probably not the place to start.
It’s joyful activities. Make it playful, make it fun, go play.
I know we could talk more about the pain stuff but here’s the problem. I regularly come to see you when I’m having some issues. You help me work through whether it be dealing with the acute issues and then you often give me movements and things to do. Not everybody has a Charlie Merrill and the Merrill Method in their backyard. By the way, you can fly to Boulder, Colorado and rent Charlie for a day. You can do this stuff if you’ve got deep pockets. What would be your advice for someone who’s like, “These guys are right, I need to take care of X.” What are the basic foundational things if that’s high on their list of things to tackle?
Do you mean if it’s an injury?
No, it’s not an injury. They don’t feel like they can do it alone. What resources do you suggest? You don’t have your webinars up yet and all that stuff. Who would they talk to?
First of all, people fly in to see me all the time. Don’t make it sound like I’m out of reach. I’m available for sure. I love to engage with people and help them learn about this stuff. We’re in a time when there’s so much advice available. There’s so much free advice on Instagram and YouTube.
I know you have YouTube videos about particular things.
They’re great resources. There’s a lot of stuff that’s not so solid out there, but we’re in a time when there’s a lot of free information for people to consume. Start with someone who’s a knowledgeable and well-known name in whatever thing you’re looking at. Tap into that person’s community, their online information, chat rooms and things like that. If you’re a baseball player, you want to find someone like Eric Cressey. If you’re a CrossFitter, you want to find someone like Kelly Starrett. In every domain, whether it’s food or sleep, there’s an expert that’s talking about it for free online. I would encourage all your followers to eat that stuff up but find good resources. Find the person that’s at the top of the game.
You’ve given me a book called Becoming A Supple Leopard.
That’s Kelly Starrett’s book. He’s a CrossFit OG, physical therapist in San Francisco.
That’s a lot of things about how to approach moving your body and treating your body.The brain is in charge of all pain. Click To Tweet
It’s about taking care of your body, recovery, why things go haywire and why they don’t. It’s a good resource for managing your body and learning to move.
Another thing you would say is find joyful movement.
I love the idea of play. I love the idea of joyful movement as a starting point. Otherwise, it feels like work. It feels like someone else told you to do it. It’s contrived and boring. I always encourage people to take the time to think like, “What do I want to do? What would be the first thing I want to do? I should run. I should ride a bike. I should go to the gym and lift weights.” If you’re not into that, don’t do that. Find something else. Go dancing, join a club or play tennis. Pick the thing that draws you in. Sometimes as I’m problem-solving with people, they’ll have an a-ha moment. They’re like, “That sounds amazing.” I introduced pickleball to an older client. He never heard of it. It was like a light bulb went off. He’s like, “I have to learn more about that.”
What is pickleball?
Pickleball is like a form of paddleball. Have you ever played Kadima on the beach with a ball? It’s like that but on a tennis court, wood paddle, Wiffle ball, smaller court, doubles format so you’re not running as much. It’s great for people that aren’t playing tennis anymore but still like racquet sports. You get the eye-hand coordination, you’re still moving, you’re being dynamic. For a lot of people, you put them in a context where they have some arthritic changes in their body and say, “We’re going to do some cutting, changing direction and sprinting.” They’re like, “No way, I can’t do that.” You put them on a pickleball court and they’re doing all those things. They’re lunging to get the ball and reaching overhead. They would never do that in a gym setting or in a PT clinic, but because it’s joyful, they can do it.
Your office works out of a CrossFit gym. Many years ago during my first sabbatical, I did some CrossFit. I don’t do it except occasionally with you as part of a treatment or just for fun. I think one of the secrets of CrossFit’s success is the community element to it. Most CrossFit workouts or WADS, as they call them, the workout of the day, are done as a group. You could do them alone, but most CrossFit gyms are set at particular periods of time in the day where you have to come in and do them with other people. There’s something to that that makes a brutal experience joyful, exciting, fun and competitive.
Speaking of CrossFit, let’s talk about a few other things. There are a lot of terms that get thrown around among more knowledgeable practitioners like you. Things like flexibility, mobility, stability, strength and power. If you’re not advanced in this, strength and power sound like the same thing, and flexibility, mobility and stability sound like the same things. I’m curious if you could talk about those different ideas and talk about the value of those.
This is one of my favorite topics as a physical therapist. I work in the world of mobility and stability a lot. I think of those two things as opposite sides of the same coin. Mobility is your body’s ability to move through space to achieve a certain range of motion like think of how much you can reach your shoulder overhead. The mobility is that amount of movement that you have to get to that end range, whatever your normal end range is. The stability on the other side of the coin is your muscle’s ability to control you into that end range. You see people that have a lot of mobility, they’re mobile at their overhead position, but when you put them there, they don’t have great control. They might have pain. They might not be able to support the weight. When you put a dumbbell in their hand, they may not be able to do it. You put them in a handstand and they completely collapse because they don’t have the muscle control to be able to support their joint and their body in that position.
Mobility is your ability to get into a handstand, your stability would be your ability to hold that handstand.
That’s one way to describe it. Mobility and stability go together, I don’t like to have people just work on mobility because then they’re building a range of movement without muscle control sometimes. Sometimes you can’t work on stability in a certain position because you can’t get there yet. You have to work on a little bit of mobility. I feel strongly that those two things go together. Strength is a different muscle system. I think of strength as the big muscles, the jocks of the muscle system. The stability muscles are more like the nerdy mathematicians that are super smart. They are doing all the fine calculations to determine how to get you into the healthiest position.
The big muscles do it without regard to the quality of movement. The stability muscles make sure that there’s quality there. They work together. That’s a simplistic way of looking at it but maybe you get the idea that you want both. If you’re picking up a deadlift, you have muscles that are working hard to lift that heavy load. You also have smaller muscle systems that are working to make sure that each spinal vertebra is moving smoothly relative to the one above and below it so that they don’t shift and you don’t have pain.
What about the word power?
Power brings more in this time domain. It gets a little more complex with regard to power. Let’s say power is like the total amount of work done over time. Your power is going to be higher if the weight is high and the speed is fast. If the weight is high but the speed is slow, you could still have good power compared to a lighter weight with the slow speed. Power is more of an equation.
It’s like weight multiplied by space multiplied by time.
Strength is more like how much force can the muscle produce.
We’ve talked about the difference between doing a strict pull-up and doing what’s called a kipping pull-up and why both are important. How does that relate to these ideas that we’ve been talking about? For the reader, how would you describe a kipping pull-up?
A kipping pull-up is like a gymnast when you see them sometimes start their routine where they go hanging from the bar, and they start to swing their body back and forth before they get up above the bar. A kip is that body movement that helps you generate momentum to get up onto the bar. Hips forward, hips backward, you can look it up. There are tons of videos in the kipping pull-up versus a strict pull-up, where you’re dead hanging and then you pull from there. The equivalent in a lower body movement would be a squat versus a box jump where one is slower and heavier, and the other one is more plyometric explosive. Depending on the load, the power could be different between those two movements. Air squat is going to generate less power than a box jump because it’s slower but the bodyweight is still fixed.
Why do both?
You talk about the difference between teaching your tissues to store energy and release them, that’s a plyometric movement. You think of jumping, you’re squatting, you’re teaching your muscles and your connective tissues store energy, and then you’re releasing it into your jump. If you’re doing it slow, you’re not getting that same energy storage release. You’re not training your tendons and ligaments as strongly. The kipping pull-up is equivalent. You’re teaching your shoulders, your muscles around your shoulders and your trunk to store energy. You’re demanding a lot more of your system to do that kip. There are more risks that come along with that like there is with any plyometric movement because you’re loading your tissues at a much higher tension. I think of that as a progression.
A strict pull-up might be first, and then a kipping pull-up might be the next step. You can do them at the same time and work them at the same time, but any high-speed or high-weight movement is the end of the line. I love the CrossFit paradigm because it’s so simple. It starts with move well first, then add repetition. Do more of them and then add intensity, which would be weight or speed. If you think of any movement with those rules, with that context, you’re going to do pretty well. It doesn’t even have to be in CrossFit. I like that model a lot to apply to anything, whether it’s running or anything else.
My experience with it was largely positive but I found myself needing to do a lot of regulating, which was essentially telling the instructor, “No, I’m not putting that amount of weight on a bar.”
When you take a high-performing athlete like you. You’ve played sports your whole life. You have a strong body and you have a strong engine. It put you into a high-intensity context where it’s competitive and you’re a competitive guy. It takes a good coach, it takes a good gym and it takes a smart athlete that has some discipline to be able to walk that line so you stay in the sweet spot, so you can grow over time. This gym, CrossFit Roots, where I rent space and I run my business is one of those gyms. I appreciate the gyms that can do that for people like you who are going into it with a strong engine, strong chassis and a competitive sensibility.
It’s hard to turn it off. It took years of experience knowing that. You’ve got to let your body adapt. It takes a long time to get fit. Let’s talk a little bit more about health. As someone who feels rather unhealthy right now. I’m going to use you for my own benefit at the moment. I am ten-plus days into a virus, some illness. The worst is behind me, but I’m clearly not back to normal from an energy standpoint, from a symptom standpoint. I know that I will heal. I know how magical the body is because I’ve always healed. I have been maintaining good habits. I’ve been focused on sleep. I’ve been focused on staying well-hydrated. After the first few days of illness where I was eating whatever I could eat to be able to have energy. I’ve been trying to keep my diet solid. Is there anything I could be doing or should be doing in terms of recovering and getting back to a normal baseline?
I talked about how the brain is in charge of all pain. The brain decides when our nervous system produces pain when we have knee discomfort. The brain also is in charge of our immune system. Not only that, but the nervous system that drives pain and the immune system that drives illness are speaking to each other. They’re in conversation. In our society, we downplay the notion of psychology of our emotional well-being as a variable that can help us prevent pain and injury and can help us prevent illness. Let’s use your immune system crash as an example.
My immune system got body-slammed.If you're looking at a way to prevent illness, prevent the breakdown of your immune system and prevent pain. Click To Tweet
I commented to you and text about how it seems like your immune system is getting hit hard. Life stress is probably one of the most under talked about variables in terms of health and wellness. There’s a stat that I read and I’m going to forget the author’s name that wrote this book. She quotes that 90% of visits to primary care doctors and emergency rooms are stress-related illnesses. It’s extremely high. It tracks well with pain in that regard. If you’re looking at a way to prevent illness, prevent the breakdown of your immune system and prevent pain, reducing life stress as best as you can is probably the missing variable. If there were three legs to the stool or four legs, that’s the missing leg. It’s stigmatized and it’s not talked about. Not everybody likes to admit that they’re going through a change in their lives or that they’re going through hard stuff, but we all are all the time.
I clearly have and I’m always testing myself. I’m always challenging myself.
If you’re living a remarkable life and you’re living at your edge, you’re going to be sometimes over or sometimes under that edge. Recognizing that that’s a variable is important, not catastrophizing. When I get hurt, I don’t worry about it too much because I understand it. When I get sick, I’m a disaster. I’m all about catastrophizing when I get sick. People can see that they get sick when they’re stressed, when there’s a lot going on at work, when there’s a lot of emotion. There are times in their life when things are hard. It’s when we tend to get sick more. That’s normal. Recognizing it, bringing down the fear around it is important and then trying to manage some of those variables and some of those stressors. It might mean that you work a little less if you can.
I can’t keep up with my normal schedule. I start the day normally and then by lunch, I’m out of gas.
It’s our brain’s way of saying, “You’ve been working too hard. You need to reel it back. If you’re not going to do it, then I’m going to do it for you.” That’s what pain is sometimes too. It’s a way to get your attention.
What you’re saying for me in terms of the recovery is be easy on yourself.
That factors into that psychological domain. This is a deep topic. When I say reduce your stress, I sound like a jerk, “Who is this guy?” There are lots of tools to be able to do that but there are also lots of variables like being hard on yourself. Expecting a lot of yourself is one of those variables when we’re hard on ourselves. That’s a psychological injury if you want to say it that way. Our immune system can suffer in that situation.
I do feel like it’s a bit of a tough situation because what’s happening is you can imagine two types of followers. You can imagine someone who’s living closer to me, in the sense of pushing himself physically, getting on planes all the time, working on new projects, teaching these challenging classes, and by the way, enjoying all of it even though it’s hard. It’s something that allows me to flourish, versus the guy who’s not stressing and testing himself enough, who’s not on a growth path. I suspect that that guy has other stresses in his life, but it’s not from pushing himself too far.
There may be some depression in that case. There may be a habit around the motivation or anxiety around fear of failure and fear of success. You’re hitting on all these psychological variables that play into our health and wellness that I don’t think we talked about enough. Pain in the immune system, they’re bedfellows. We need to think of them in a similar way.
You talked to me about this idea of a total stress score as your stick for thinking about how is life going right now. What is the total stress score for you?
Total stress score comes out of the world of professional athletics. I don’t know how old school this term is anymore, but I’ve always liked it and I’ve always shared it. It’s this notion that our performance is going to be determined by all the stressors in our life. The higher the total stress score, the lower our performance is going to be. It’s probably an upside-down U. There’s a sweet spot but if you get to this super high level, your performance is going to suffer. That’s true whether you’re a professional athlete or whether you’re in your life.
Total stress score might be made of work stressors and it might be relationship stressors. It could be anxiety or depression. It could be the way you’re eating. There are tons of variables that play into this but the idea is the more you put those stressors onto the pile, the higher your stress score and the less you’re going to perform. It’s almost like an abstract number for a lot of people. You’ll often see that when your immune system breaks down or when you get pain that total stress score is a bit high or high in some cases. Across domains, it might be one domain is super high like someone passes away in your life, you move your life across the country, you get a divorce or you break up with a partner. Those are all one domain, but it’s high in that one domain. It spikes your total stress score. The other things might also be high and that even makes it worse. There are times in our lives when our health and wellness suffer. It tracks pretty true to that.
In closing and reflecting on our conversation, Charlie, I want to ask you what advice you might have for the reader based upon the types of topics that we’ve been talking about? What are some things that either you want to reinforce or that we might have overlooked that might be useful when you think about improving your health and fitness dealing with illness, stress, etc.?
I come back to this idea of moderation where we started. Trying to do your best and all those domains to check the box in the way you know is healthy. Sleeping five hours a night is not going to be good. You go to the dance club one night, fine, you’ll be fine. Don’t worry about that too much. You go off the rails because you’re on vacation you’re eating terribly, fine. You’re going to be fine. The psychological concern or worry about those things is almost as worse than doing the thing itself.
It’s interesting. I’ve read where people talk about these guys who have regimented workout schedules. They work out hard. They eat clean and so on but yet they have what they call cheat days. The idea that a day of eating stuff that’s not always super good for you is not a problem at all and might be beneficial. It’s good for your body to have to process that on occasion. The problem is when it turns into a regular thing.
Our belief system plays into that quite a bit. If you believe X, X will probably happen.
I remember I was complaining of some issue that I had, I can’t even remember what it was at this point. I was walking out of your office and you looked at me and said, “Don’t baby it.” That was a useful thing for me to hear, which is I know you’re having pain in this part of your body, but it’s okay. You’re going to be okay. If you treat it as if it’s this major problem to be worked around and so on, you’re not going to be better off.
We’re robust organisms. We don’t give ourselves enough credit for that. We were talking about being an athlete. I like to remind people that everybody’s an athlete. Everybody has an inside athlete. I see people who are 80 and they’ve been deconditioned. They’ve never squatted before or done a lot of activity before but they all have the capacity to do it. I see people in their 40s that have been scared to death to run, they’re terrified. You get them running again, they’re like, “I can run. This is unbelievable. I never thought I’d be able to run again.” We forget that we’re built to move and we forget that we’re robust. We forget that we’re durable and that we heal. We get in our own way sometimes around that.
The one admonition that I would make is to be patient, to take it slowly and build to do that. I think that there are two errors that people make. One is not going far enough, that’s the person who’s not running who could stand to run. The other one is the person who goes out and runs six miles on day one. As someone who decided I was going to build my body back up, it was striking how long it took and how I had a couple of setbacks because I was going back to the way I was always, which is competitive and, “Let’s go. Let’s turn this on. Let’s turn it up to eleven.” I wasn’t quite ready to do that but I recognized that I would eventually be able to do that. It’s just going to take a little longer than I would have liked it to.
Our brain likes change. It doesn’t like it too fast because it will trigger the alarm, nervous system, immune system or whatever. It will give us feedback that that was too much too soon. It’s good that you mentioned that. There are people that break through those barriers quickly and suddenly, and they didn’t think they could do it. That’s a different thing. Maybe they could do it all along and they didn’t trust or didn’t try it.
I also have noticed at times that often the improvements are non-linear. It’s like stepwise or roller coaster. You get this sudden increase at some point that’s hard to anticipate instead of this slow and steady build.
As we’re wrapping up here, I’m dropping back into your audience and thinking of your audience. Different people being in different places in their lives. We’re talking about this in a way where it’s all possible.
Let’s compare two potential readers. Some guy who’s just out of college and he’s getting adjusted to some working life versus a guy who’s 55, who’s just got divorced and getting used to a solo life. Those guys might be in different places physically as a result of this, yet they still ought to have the same goal, which is to build fitness, good health and good habits.
I don’t want to take for granted the fact that these things are challenging. These things that we’re talking about making life-changing habits. It’s hard as you know.
I have a saying about this, “Anything worth doing is going to be difficult.” If you want to be fit, it’s not going to be easy. That’s the biggest lie that marketing tells people. It’s never been easy to get fit. It’s total bullcrap. It doesn’t mean that it’s not going to be fun or not going to be rewarding. The difficulty is going to make it rewarding but it’s not easy.We forget that we're built to move, that we're robust, durable, and that we heal. Click To Tweet
I realized I spend my days mostly believing in people. I spend my days being optimistic, encouraging and hopeful. A lot of us need that. Wherever you are in your process, believing in yourself is important. If you need to find some external sources to help you start to believe in yourself and put one foot in front of the other to start making those incremental changes, that’s out there. There are plenty of people out there that can help you do that.
I’m also a big believer in doing these things together with whoever is interested in this stuff.
Friends, professionals, online community, whatever it is.
Charlie, this was exactly what I had hoped we would get through and talk about. I want to say I appreciate your time.
I appreciate you too.
For a little bit of a bonus conversation. I am now well, and it sounds like Charlie’s a little unwell.
I’m getting back to being well.
At the end of our session, as soon as it wrapped, you spontaneously said, “We should have talked about exercising so you look good naked.”
There’s always something that comes up at the end that you wish you had talked about.
That’s what this bonus conversation is for as someone who exercises to look good naked. I’m a fan of this idea.
There are lots of reasons to exercise but that’s an important one that not enough people talk about.
Let’s talk about it. Why is it an important reason?
We have a lot of research on exercise and what the benefits are from cardiovascular health to prevent disease, relieving pain, feeling confident in your life and feeling energized. There are some other things that we used to think exercise did that we know maybe aren’t true anymore. We know that core stability doesn’t necessarily prevent back pain. We keep asking these questions.
I’ve wasted a lot of time doing sit-ups.
It doesn’t mean that doing core stability exercise isn’t helpful or doesn’t have some benefit, but reducing the prevalence of back pain is not something that correlates well. The question that you start asking is, why should I be doing core stability exercise because it’s terribly boring? It’s contrived and it’s not built-in usually to some functional movement that I would do like picking up a bag of concrete or doing some real movement in our life.
I want to interrupt by making an observation. I’ve been doing this F45 class, 1 or 2 days a week. It was functional movements, high-intensity, 40 seconds on, 20 seconds off, circuit style, lots of different types of movements. There are little abs in 45 and I’ve always found it perplexing that we’re not doing almost any abs at all. Occasionally, the most obvious thing you’ll do is some twist. You have a medicine ball and you’ll tap it on to your right, then you’ll turn over and tap it on your left. You go back and forth. That might be the most common ab thing there.
They’re smart. They’re tricking you into doing ab-work because our abs are not an isolated muscle group. They’re like the rest of the muscles in our body. They work together in synergy. By doing these functional movements, you’re using your abs by definition. You’re going to not only lean out your whole body, which is going to allow you to see your abs better, but you’re also going to be building control and strength with real movement that you’re going to be doing in your day-to-day life.
There’s a lot of stuff like you’re holding a medicine ball over your head and then you’re doing a backward lunge.
That requires a lot of stability and control from the muscles in your midsection and connecting them with what your arms and legs are doing is an important part of the process. It makes you more robust as a person. It makes you a more durable athlete that will fatigue less quickly. It supports movement overall. To come back, you asked these questions like why am I doing core strength? At the end of the day, having a body that looks good is an important reason to do that stuff. You want to develop the muscles that you want to be able to see. You need to be able to shed some of the fat that’s covering them up. Working on those muscle groups in isolation can be a strategy to start that process.
There’s a reason that most fitness products get sold with before and after photos. That’s implicit in this. No one’s buying your exercise program if the before and after photos look the same, but in the second photo, you’re a lot healthier.
It’s motivating. That’s why everybody seeks out exercise despite the fact that we know there are all these other benefits that are real for people in their lives that might be considered more important if you took a step back. At the end of the day, we all want to be able to look good with our clothes off whether we talk about it or not or even look good with your clothes on.
I exercise for lots of reasons. Some of the reasons I exercise are injury prevention. I do it in part because I know it helps my thinking. It helps my emotions. It’s a stress reliever. Also, to feel good about myself when I look in the mirror and potentially to feel comfortable in the bedroom, at the beach, the pool or whatever that thing is.
One of the most interesting things about exercising at a relatively high intensity, even if it’s only for twenty minutes, is that we unleash this pharmacy in our brain. It releases the chemicals that we need at that moment. It could be antidepressant, anxiety, weight loss, appetite control. All of those medicines that we go to the doctor to get, we have those in our brain. By exercising, we release those naturally into our bloodstream in the appropriate dose. We don’t think about that enough. Part of leaning out from exercise is this chemical release that we get from our brain into our bloodstream.
Tell me if I’m right about this. My feeling is that if you want to look good naked, it’s important to exercise. It’s important to have more muscle on your legs and backside, broader stronger shoulders. The classic things for both men and women. The aesthetic side of this but frankly, you have a layer of fat. The more of that fat you lose, the more those muscles show up. The more aesthetically pleasing up to a certain degree. There was this whole thing about Michelle Obama’s arms. For a week, Michelle Obama’s arms broke the internet. I don’t know if any of you remember that. How did Michelle Obama get those arms?
I’m sure she got those arms by doing push-ups and pull-ups and doing a bunch of other things where she’s moving weights rather than isolated bicep curl type of things, real functional movement. We can agree that I’m certain that the Obamas have an outstanding personal trainer, but how did she get those arms? She probably improved her eating. She was drinking less alcohol if she drinks alcohol. She wasn’t eating late at night. She had some fast. She was going lighter on the dressing and skipping dessert. The fact is that you can be a fit individual. You could have those shapely muscles. You could have strong abs but if you’re not eating well, no one ever sees it.You can be proud of a body that allows you to do what you want to do in your life. Click To Tweet
Some people say eating is most of the equation. This is known in the fitness world that as much as we sell exercise to try to get people looking good naked, it’s a smaller part of the process than the way we eat or the way we live our lives, the quality of our lives. Did you ever think about that?
I want to say things but I want to hear from you. You’re the expert. I’m growing by holding back.
I’m trying not to get too superficial about this because the aesthetic is important. Another important part of feeling good about yourself when you’re naked doesn’t necessarily have to mean you lose all your fat or get super lean or get ripped abs.
Let’s be honest, the average person will never have ripped abs.
That’s why it’s important to address the idea of self-esteem. Aesthetics is just a small part of that but you feeling good about yourself when you look in the mirror has more to do than with how much muscle you have and how much fat that you’ve shed off your body. You want to be confident in your body and exercising is an important way to not only get strong to be able to live your life and be an athlete if you want to choose to do that. It’s also feeling good about your body as a machine.
It works well.
You’re proud of it. Almost regardless of how it looks.
I think that people’s view of how their body looks and works is they have the wrong reference point. What people often do is they want the body of an Instagram model, male or female. For those people, that’s their full-time job, it’s to look like that. They also are in their early twenties often. They’re youthful. You can go far in terms of fitness when you’re young.
It’s not a helpful standard.
I think the standard should be, am I making the most out of my body? Am I looking as good as I can look given the kind of body I have? I have a long lean body, which is nice. If I want to lose fat, I can lose fat. I’m 49, but I can get a six-pack. I can do that. Most 49-year-old men could never do that. What I can’t do and what I tried to do when I was 16, 17, 18, 19, and 20 was I tried to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. If I wanted to try to look like a bodybuilder, I could lift weights. I could eat 10,000 calories and squat like crazy, do bench press and I’ll never have that kind of body. I’ll be more muscular but I won’t have that kind of body. What helped me was that I learned to compare my body to the way it used to look, to the way it could look without concern and without comparing it to yours, to Arnold’s or to anyone else’s. That was a big change for me as a man to be like, “I look good for me.”
To take that a step further. You can be proud of a body that allows you to do what you want to do in your life. If you want to be a modern dancer and you can do that thing well. You feel good about your body’s ability to move with some of those complex movements regardless of how it looks, you should feel pretty proud of your body that it can do those amazing things.
One example of this is you do not have to be skinny to run a marathon. The idea that you could do something that is hard.
Ironman Triathlon is the same thing.
You can do something difficult that’s challenging physically but you don’t look like the traditional professional. A nice example is, can your body do what you want it to do? It can run 26 straight miles. That’s a feat for the average person.
Being proud of your body is part of looking good naked.
If you’re like, “This body can run 26 miles. I could show it to you in the bedroom. I’m not embarrassed by it.” This notion of eating being a big part of looking good naked if that is part of your goal. It’s a reasonable goal for people to have, especially if you’re single, you’re solo and you are dating. I know we’re getting a little outside your expertise, but what in your opinion are the main basics of eating if that’s the goal?
It’s different for every person at some level. I’m the last person that’s going to make rules in my own work. With food, it’s even harder, partly because there’s a lot of pseudoscience. There are lots of rules anyway.
It’s hard to do research on nutrition because when you change one thing, you often change multiple things.
We talked about this idea of moderation and I don’t like to demonize any foods. There are some foods that maybe you could argue are harder on our bodies than others. Finding moderation is important especially with things like sugar. We know that a lot of people respond poorly to eating high-carbohydrate diets. If you’re one of those people, that’s probably a nutrient that you want to monitor. Whereas other people don’t have that problem as much so they may not have that rule. That’s why I have trouble sometimes making hard and fast rules about food.
First of all, I will say cutting back drinking to some moderate level is a no-brainer. Cutting back on highly-processed foods with sugar is probably a no-brainer.
Alcohol is basically sugar. It just converts.
There are a few of those kinds of things. Eating more fruits and vegetables seems like a no-brainer. There are some things that are probably okay, but suppose a person is reading and they go, “I exercise. I do feel good about my body, but I do want it to look better. I know that if I eat better, both my exercise will get better, my mood will get better and I’ll look better naked.” Where do they go given that they may have an individual need? I get it, I can see in the same way that you can’t prescribe the same exercise program to five different people. You can’t prescribe the same nutrition program to five different people. How do you find a good nutritionist or a good expert to help you with this?
How do you seek out the right information, especially knowing that there are many people sharing information in different ways? It’s almost more confusing sometimes to know. Should I look at keto? Should I look at paleo? Which diet thing do I choose? If you’re trying to look good naked and you’re trying to find an exercise plan that works for you, seek out things that are joyful so that they’re sustainable, so that you can do them over time. Find a diet philosophy that resonates for you and try it. See what happens. We’re all experiments of one. There’s no harm in using yourself as a laboratory just to see how you respond. Don’t rely on other people to tell you that but seek it out.
At the same time, I’m always encouraging people with exercise to mix things up because we’re wired for novelty. We’re wired for change. You might seek out dancing for a little while, once you do that, you might say, “I need to put that away,” then you can do some boxing. With food, it’s the same way. We crave novelty, we crave change. A nice way to keep ourselves disciplined is to constantly be curious, seeking and learning new things about ourselves. It’s the only way that you’re going to find answers to that question.
That’s good advice. I like the idea of figuring out something that works for you. Charlie, thank you for sticking around and doing a little extra bonus conversation.
I love talking with you, Pete. Thanks for having me on the show.
- Charlie Merrill
- Eric Cressey
- Kelly Starrett
- Becoming A Supple Leopard
- CrossFit Roots
About Charlie Merrill
The creator of the Merrill Method, Charlie Merrill is a Boulder-based physical therapist who specializes in multiple treatments help his patients restore mobility, reduce pain, rehabilitate an injury, or simply live a healthier more fit life.
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