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"Strength Is More Than Just Muscle"

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Interviewing the Power Seekers - Batman O'Brien

I interviewed the creator of the revolutionary fitness program, 7 Seconds to A Perfect Body, and my mentor in strength and fitness, Paul 'Batman' O'Brien! He gives some great info about mastering life in death, developing superb foundational strength, and how being inspired by a superhero changed his life.  A great read for anyone really. Check it out!


How many years have you trained in isometrics, and what triggered you to do so?

I've been dedicated to training in Isometrics now for about 12 years or so now. Before that they had always been part of my routine, but certainly not the core that they have become.

As for what triggered it - the same reason that most people do anything - RESULTS. I got better results in terms of building muscle, developing strength, increasing my overall health and fitness from 3 week of Isometrics than I did in the 3 years of body building and weight lifting I had done before hand.

I wasn't always the lean, hard muscular martial artist I am today. I was once a doughy, fat, weak failure of a human being, one that jiggled when he walked and kept his shirt on by the pool because he was absolutely ashamed of his appearance. And that was when I was a FITNESS INSTRUCTOR!

I talk about this in the introduction to 7 Seconds to A Perfect Body but being a fitness instructor and personal trainer does not mean you are automatically gifted with a great body and health. Far from it. Working in the fitness industry is often the least healthy option! I was working 14 hour days, injured from over training, consuming a terrible, irregular diet, sleeping poorly and doing the same unproductive workouts I was taught in college. Workouts that ARE DESIGNED NOT TO WORK.

That was something else that happened. I realised the fitness industry is NOT set up to get you in shape - its goal is the exact opposite in fact! They keep you on that treadmill year after year paying for a useless membership; or better still setting you up to fail so you pay for your membership and then don't bother cluttering up the gym so they can sell that space to someone else.

Most successful gyms simply couldn't run if just a quarter of their members showed up - there wouldn't be space! They WANT you to fail and be discouraged. They want to keep you out most of the year and then give you false hope in January so you sign up and the cycle can repeat.

Gyms are a factory making broken dreams.

I was sick of that. Sick of not getting results. Sick of the lies they were making me tell people. Sick from doing workouts that actually made me ill!

So I went looking for a different solution...and I found one... Isometrics...

Why is Batman such an important character for you, and how do you emulate him in your lifestyle?

I actually legally changed my name to Batman. Seriously. I'm Batman.

Why...well simple...he's the epitome of human achievement. Batman is the ultimate evolution and expression of human potential. He's an intellectual powerhouse, mastering disparate disciplines, from forensics to philosophy, horticulture to hieroglyphics...engineering and chemistry to fashion. The man studies and achieves expert levels of knowledge in nearly every aspect of human achievement...and then physically, he's an expert in the martial arts, gymnastics, weapons, strength training and more.

He also has perfected the inner game, strategy, tactics, business, philosophy - he is a man, just a man, like each and every one of us...and yet he can go toe to toe with super powered aliens, mutants, even gods and still comes out stronger than all of them....and at the heart of that is incredible human spirit. An overwhelming compassion for all, a child's direct and unfiltered desire to end all crime, all pain for everyone.

If you were going to strive to be the best human being you could possibly be, as Bruce Lee once famously said...a "fully expressed human being" ...then you'd be Batman...I strive to achieve that example so that I can be of the best service possible to my fellow men and women. I can serve my community better if I am better. The stronger and more knowledgeable and healthy I am the more resources I can bring to bear in helping others.

That's what I decided when I was 8, and I've spent EVERY moment of my life since in pursuit of that goal, to be the very best human being I could and to fully realise my existence. I'm a long, long way from achieving that...but I'm on the road.

I'm Batman - it's an affirmation, which quickly sums the entire potential for self expression in the near infinite ways a man can in 8 letters.

You are a man who wears many hats: sensei of an Iaido dojo, TCM practitioner, physical trainer and massage therapist, among others. What drove you to so many diverse interests, and how does this array of interests affect your day-to-day life/interactions?

It's not many hat's. It's a cowl. It's Batman's cowl.

I strive to be a student in as many fields as necessary to fully develop myself and to better serve the needs of my community. With that said though, I would challenge you in saying that they are diverse fields - that simply isn't true. Everything you listed above is the same thing to me.

For example, being a martial artist means understanding the pressure points of the body - these are based on Traditional Chinese Medicine which informs my knowledge of Acupuncture. Being a martial artist also means I must be well trained in anatomy and physiology - I know how to break the human machine and knowing that informs me best on how to fix it. For example the wrist releases I use to re-align the carpel bones of the wrist for repetitive strain disorder or carpel tunnel syndrome are the exact same techniques used to break a wrist in the traditional martial arts. The only difference is the speed and severity of application. :-)

Underpinning the martial arts is Chinese Medical philosophy...that philosophy used in combat and military tactics would later are the same principles upon which I run my businesses. Even my nutritional philosophy is informed by these principles.

The combination of all of this has led to my fitness training techniques and methods...food, training, mental development - it's all the same thing.

Each and every one of my interests ties into and enhances the others, it's all interconnected.

You are an immensely powerful man for your size, but the road to strength didn't come easy for you. You faced a disease, obesity, a shattered tibia, and various things but continued nonetheless. What motivates you to keep going?

Thanks...though that strength itself can sometime get in the way. ;-) If I hug my wife at the wrong angle I could seriously hurt her. I open a door and if I'm distracted the door handle will come off in my hand or the door off its hinges. That's happened more than once. To quote an episode of Superman the Animated Series...sometimes, "I feel like I live in world made of cardboard". There are times I worry if I'm too strong. ;-)

But yes, it's been an interesting road to get where I am now. But that's often what progress looks like. Even in things like weight loss - it's rarely a straight line moving down. Often it's a squiggling line that goes up, down, backwards, off the page...but eventually get to the point you want it to. As for my motivation...well it comes back to Batman and the Martial Arts...

Are you familiar with the samurai family text the Hagakure?

It's first line reads...

The Way of the Samurai is found in death”

Now, I'm not a death loving morbid freak by any stretch of the imagination and that line often quoted as being the samurai death wish is in fact the opposite it is an affirmation of life. Now, even though I practice traditional samurai military arts I’m no samurai – but that one phrase has stuck with me for many years and is the key behind the motivation to train, to do things I don’t want to do, to make the sacrifices I must to live without regret.

For the last 17 years, I have followed and continue to follow a strict code of ethics and morality called Bushido, the way of the warrior, the supposed lifestyle and beliefs of the Japanese Samurai (I say supposed because the Hagakure and the Bushido and several other texts upon which these principles detailing the virtues and path of the samurai are based, and from which my own moral code is educated by, were written many, many years after the actual warring periods of the samurai, when most samurai were monks that had never seen combat – and thus had no clue what they were talking about…funny that...and I have an article that discusses this in detail on my site.)

Anyway, in bushido – there is one major concept, strangely similar in fact to the attitude of the many counter-terrorism schools and military units I’ve trained with and taught...

The Way of the Samurai is found in death. When it comes to either/or, there is only the quick choice of death. It is not particularly difficult. Be determined and advance. To say that dying without reaching one's aim is to die a dog's death is the frivolous way of sophisticates. When pressed with the choice of life or death, it is not necessary to gain one's aim.

We all want to live. And in large part we make our logic according to what we like. But not having attained our aim and continuing to live is cowardice. This is a thin dangerous line. To die without gaming one's aim is a dog's death and fanaticism. But there is no shame in this. This is the substance of the Way of the Samurai. If by setting one's heart right every morning and evening, one is able to live as though his body were already dead, he gains freedom in the Way. His whole life will be without blame, and he will succeed in his calling.”

After years of practice and mindfully watching my thoughts this is easier to do. Every morning I take ten deep isometric breaths as though they were my last and meditate on the thought they may us well be. Maybe today is the day. Maybe I’ll get hit on my motorbike. I don’t know. I do know, that one day, sooner than I’d like it – I won’t have the opportunities I have now.

I’m still young, I can move once again without physical impediment. I am not struggling to find food. I could choose to fuel my health with good stuff that energises and strengthens me, or with crap that tires and weakens me…and unlike many I refuse to abdicate my personal responsibilities and medicate myself into a food coma. I have been given a rare privilege, I am alive and I will not waste a moment of that, because I don’t have a lot time. Even if I lived to be 150 that still isn’t long enough.

The Hagakure advises…

Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily. Every day when one’s body and mind are at peace, one should meditate upon being ripped apart by arrows, rifles, spears and swords, being carried away by surging waves, being thrown into the midst of a great fire, being struck by lightning, being shaken to death by a great earthquake, falling from thousand-foot cliffs, dying of disease or committing seppuku at the death of one’s master. And every day without fail one should consider himself as dead.”

I do the same every evening. As I’ve experienced my life, or perhaps I should just as correctly my death, I have found this to be my one total truth. My martial arts teachers always said this was “my hara showing”, my friends said it was unhealthy obsession – my family, simply think I am crazy.

But what has this do to with my training?

Simple – training is where I get to live my death.

Every time I go to practice an isometric contraction, or to test my strength in a public display like a bench press I try to approach it as my very last. I soak up that feeling, the possibility that I will never get to express myself like this again – that I will never get to test myself –that I will never again know the feeling of my muscles pushing themselves beyond their own limits. That I will never again experience what it is to truly alive in every part of being – then push. I give it everything I have and if I die here under that weight, I may die a dog’s death having failed, but that in my failure I attain nobility.

Each and every time I go to contract a muscle in one of the exercises I teach in my Perfect Body course, I think this may be the last time I get to enjoy this, make it your best. I give it my all, till my muscles shake and I’m drenched in sweat and I simply can’t give anymore, and then I push even harder, because it is in those moments when you have nothing left you find that you can push that little bit more and achieve the impossible.

Live each day like it may be your last, for in the end it is the opportunities we fail to take that we regret the most.

Isometrics aren't often promoted as a complete training system on its own. How has training almost solely in isometrics affected your RoM strength, speed, etc.?

That's true - and there's a reason for that - it's NOT a complete system, not for all the things we can do - but it is a complete foundation....let me explain....

In terms of strength, nothing and I mean nothing, beats Isometrics for developing strength. Isometric Training is the SINGLE most effective method of strength training available. In 1954 two German Scientists, Muller and Hettinger conclusively proved in over 5,000 independent clinical trials, that one could increase strength by 5-15% with a single 7 second stimulation once a week.

Subjects in a later study performing a daily 7 second contraction increased their strength by 72% in 46 weeks. The fall of strength after the end of training is very slow. 70 weeks after the end of training their strength was still 42% higher than before the beginning of training. After doing nothing for over a year and a half they were still 42% stronger than when they started.

That's how I've built my remarkable levels of strength. Today I can currently leg press a cumulative total of over 17,000lbs in less than 3 minutes. I have a 1 rep max of 4,652lbs in my strongest range. In that range I can bench press over 600lbs, I can deadlift over 1,000lbs. I lifted a grown man overhead with one arm, I can support a bodybuilder on my stomach while I am in a full back bridge. I can support my entire bodyweight on just my two thumbs...that's strength solely developed through isometrics.

But Isometrics develops more that - for instance speed...

Isometrics is based on stimulating your fast twitch fibres, I explain this in detail in my 7 Week course to total body mastery - 7 Seconds to A Perfect Body, but to quickly review some of the science behind this and examine the underlying principals of all muscular contractions. While there are many different fibre types and subsets there are three main ones.

These are:

Slow twitch fibres - Mainly used for endurance of a muscle, your neck for instance would have more of these than fast twitch – it has to hold your head up all day.

Intermediate twitch fibres - Possess qualities of both slow and fast twitch fibres.

Fast twitch fibres - Responsible for the speed of muscular contraction.

It’s the third one I want you to pay attention to. Fast twitch fibres are not only thicker (think bigger muscles) but are the primary fibres used by the muscle for speed, agility, quickness, and power. In fact fast twitch fibres are 10 times faster in contracting than slow fibres.

Now there are 2 reasons why Isometric Training works to achieve an increase in speed over any other form of training.

One, forcing the most out of your muscle(s) in a particular position for a specific length of time, you will begin to recruit and activate more and more motor units to help maintain this contraction. Motor units that are rarely exercised within a particular muscle are now brought into use with Isometric Training, perhaps for the first time. (This is also why people dramatically improve their strength so quickly as well).

Two, the motor units that are recruited are forced to contract continuously, time after time, with no appreciable a progressive increase in force output. This forces muscular development and increased neurological efficiency while allowing you to achieve this state of maximum force very safely and effectively.

I use these methods with martial artists, with sprinters, boxers and more to rapidly increase their ability to move faster...and as a result of Isometric Training for you get rapid improvements in strength and speed. And it gets better.

You can be stronger, faster...for longer....

Before we discuss the benefits of Isometric Training Endurance we need to have to look at the different types of endurance that exist...

Muscular endurance, the ability to continue to relax and contract the muscles for extended periods of time. As we use the muscles the various fibres fatigue. In addition to this we could add, physical endurance, the ability of the body (muscles) to withstand trauma be it from, impact of strikes, throws or joint locks.

Cardiovascular endurance, the ability of the heart and lungs to circulate oxygen and blood to the muscles and to maintain a heart rate that supports continued activity, in other words high effort, without a high intense heart rate.

Mental endurance, the ability to psychologically keep going, maintaining focus and attention.

Each of these contributes to increased stamina. And each of these can be improved dramatically through Isometric Training. Leaving the third point, that of mental endurance, built through the practice of focused isometric contraction and breathing, it seems obvious that the first 2 are interrelated.

For instance one could stay at a relatively low heart rate and maintain cardio endurance by simply walking. But after 20 miles, while you’d still be breathing normally enough, your muscles will be tired, the SO fibres fatigued, and the trauma on the joints and impact of movement will likely have blistered your feet. So we fall down on point 1.

By contrast one can sprint all out and bring their heart rate up to 110% of its max. From a cardio point of view this simply isn’t sustainable for a significant period of time. And you’ll fatigue and exhaust very quickly, long before your muscles will. And so we fall down on point 2.

The focus then of Isometric Training is to maximise both the muscles strength and maximise the cardiovascular output of the heart. Now, many would advocate things like long distance jogging, or other time based activities to increase endurance – surely a marathon runner has plenty of muscular and cardiovascular stamina? Funnily, studies have shown that this is NOT the case. In fact distance runners have a lower amount of muscular endurance than non runners. How is that possible? It’s quite common sense really.

You see, in the case of distance running the body wants to streamline, it wants to make the body as efficient and energy conscious as possible and as such it loses unnecessary muscle tissue. That’s right; the body will ditch any muscle tissue that is surplus to need, and all they need it to put one foot in front of the other. They keep thin, SO muscle fibre and ditch the rest. This is why many marathon and distance runners look little more than walking skeletons.

To endure you NEED muscle tissue. Lots of it. This is where Isometric Training comes into play. When you come down to the very basic level of what endurance is from a muscle perspective at any rate it this – the ability to repeatedly contract a muscle. Ideally you want this to be a VERY EFFICIENT contraction. The better able your muscles are able to contract the less energy is needed by the body to do it. The bigger and thicker the muscle, the more glycogen (energy) it can store. This means you can do more. The more muscle tissue you have, the stronger it is, the easier it is to move, and thus, the more movements you can make. If you want to improve your muscular endurance the simple solution is to build more muscle.

This equally applies to physical endurance, the ability to keep going in the face of trauma. The more firm the muscle, the greater the ability to absorb and re-direct impact. This means the firmer you make your muscles the more impact you can take. The stronger your muscles, tendons and ligaments, the less you risk injury. More muscle means you can move more, and take more.

As we’ve seen the most efficient way of building both strength and muscle tissue is isometrics.

With all that said I do advocate integrating isometrics with specialised high intensity interval routines, joint mobilisation and specialised recovery methods which are found in my other programs.

Do you have any special advice for the fellow strength trainers out there? And how do we find you online? Hopefully your web presence isn't in a batcave. (Facebook, Twitter, Google +, websites, etc)

Lol. Yep...the Batcave is a secret location but when I'm not there you can find me here -

If you interested in Learning more about Isometrics hit up www.Isometric-Training.com

If you want to get in on Isometric Training check out my complete course here - 7 Seconds to a Perfect Body 

You can also connect with me on Facebook here - http://www.facebook.com/IsometricTraining

If you're a martial artsist then check out my dedciated martial arts site - www.way-of-the-samurai.com

Outside of all that you can learn more about my medical practice at:

www.meridian-acupuncture-clinic.com

and Connect with me on:

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/DublinAcu

Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/DublinAcu

YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/DublinAcu

Thanks for having me Jarell!

 

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