Female Athletes and Body Image

Tennis’s Top Women Balance Body Image With Quest for Success - NYTimes.com

Williams, who will be vying for the Wimbledon title against Garbiñe Muguruza on Saturday, has large biceps and a mold-breaking muscular frame, which packs the power and athleticism that have dominated women’s tennis for years. Her rivals could try to emulate her physique, but most of them choose not to.

Despite Williams’s success — a victory Saturday would give her 21 Grand Slam singles titles and her fourth in a row — body-image issues among female tennis players persist, compelling many players to avoid bulking up.

Two things immediately strike me as absurd about this story: that fashion-world aesthetic standards are applied to athletes, and that the athletes themselves give a damn about those standards.

But then again, I’m at least sipping the kool-aid of the CrossFit world, where the top female athletes are nearly as burly as most males in other sports, and who usually say they want to get even bigger and stronger.

CrossFit is a very young sport, and has had more than its share of growing pains, but among the things the CrossFit community has done right, the most positive is the promotion of the primacy of performance. Aesthetics are acknowledged, but looks are considered to be a reflection of health and performance; an external indicator of internal states. In stark contrast to many fitness venues, the vast majority of CF boxes[1] don’t even have mirrors.

That doesn’t stop the objectification of either gender in CrossFit, but it does influence the perception. The CrossFit promotional video Beauty in Strength is guilty of selecting some of the most aesthetically pleasing women involved in CF, but the focus on strength and the changes in body-image the women themselves express is quite different from the mainstream fitness industry, and apparently more positive than the self-image of athletes in other sports. An article in the CrossFit Journal, “Saved by the Barbell” talked about the overwhelmingly positive effect the pro-fitness bias in CrossFit has had on women who have often had psychological issues in the past about their weight, stature, or tendency to put on muscle.

Williams would be one of the skinnier women out there if she were competing in the CrossFit Games. Non-CF publications like Shape, Men’s Fitness, and The Athletic Build have compiled galleries of the “hottest”[2] women in CF, and you can see that the most girly of them is arguably more muscular than Williams. Maybe Williams should consider getting into CrossFit instead. I’m pretty sure it would be better for her self-image than tennis.

  1. CF-style gyms are called “boxes” in the community. I would say all CrossFit boxes don’t have mirrors, but since there’s nothing like a universal format, there might be a couple of places with a full-length mirror or two somewhere. Certainly nothing like the wall of mirrors at your typical Gold’s, though.  ↩

  2. I put that in scare quotes because it’s a loaded term, to say the least.  ↩

Why I'm Not Interested in Owning an  Watch

I’ve been thinking about this at least since it was first announced[1], but the capabilities of the Apple Watch as of right now do not present a good use-model or value proposition. It’s a more interesting product than the alternatives like Pebble, because of better integration with iOS which will give it more capabilities than any third-party device will ever have. The design is beautiful, and the aspirational engineer in me drools over the details of how Apple makes the watch. But that’s not enough to make me want to actually buy one.

I wear a watch for two reasons:

  1. I want a consistently reliable alternative to my phone for telling the time.
  2. (Distant second) I want a fashion accessory.

A smart-watch would add this benefit:

  1. A more accessible and portable alternative to my phone, particularly when in motion.

The Apple Watch will, at least for now, work only as adjunct to an iPhone. That means it’s not as useful as a pure wearable in most situations since it negates the portability. If I have to carry my iPhone to use the Watch, I’d rather just carry the iPhone. The lack of GPS and need for tethering basically eliminates the main use I’d have for it — as a device for tracking workouts or runs.

The interactions do not generally look useful to me. I do more production than reception on my phone. I have almost all notifications turned off, and only use messaging or email occasionally since I often can’t respond during work hours unless on an explicit break. I had to change my notification settings for messages and email because even vibration-only is noticeable in some situations at work.

All models of the Apple Watch are aesthetically pleasing, which makes them very desirable objects, but the fashion aspect and object-lust is not enough to make its appeal irresistible. I have two nice, moderately expensive watches. Only one — the old dumb mechanical watch — actually gets worn because it’s rock-solid reliable. The other looks good, but proved to be useless as a timepiece.

I’ve found that the most important aspect of a watch is reliability. I could easily do without one, and in fact didn’t wear a watch at all for a few years after I started carrying a cell phone regularly. I started wearing one again after my wife insisted on buying a watch as a wedding present. (For the record, I was a cheap bastard, so I told her not to spend too much on me, otherwise she probably would have bought a lower-end Rolex or something similar.)

The user-hostile design of that Citizen watch quickly made me very leery of using it at all. If you’re going to break a user interaction model, you’d damn well better do it for a good reason. They didn’t have one.

In addition to being rendered useless when I went overseas, within the next 2 years (right after the warranty expired, in fact) it had stopped working reliably at all. It would sometimes completely stop, as if it had run out of power, even after I left it in a place with direct access to sunlight for a whole day to charge. I got it serviced, which mostly fixed that problem, but soon after it started to reset itself to the wrong time even after I manually reset it using the ridiculously complicated procedure Citizen’s engineers implemented. I got it serviced again, but the problem randomly re-occurred. I never wear it anymore because it was not just unreliable, it was unpredictably unreliable.

For nearly 20 years, I’ve had an Omega[2] that I also got as a gift. I have had only routine service performed on it twice. It has an all-mechanical self-winding movement. It’s not ridiculously accurate — it will drift several seconds[3] over a week or so — and you have to wear it for at least a few hours every day to keep it running without manual winding, but it’s a workhorse. If it doesn’t work, it’s inevitably because I have not worn it recently and the power reserve has run out. It has run consistently for years without stopping. With some care, it will probably be keeping reasonably accurate time for one of my grandkids, and will probably still be worth as much as a comparable contemporary watch.

I love tech stuff. I am nearly as susceptible as other geeks to the sparkly lure of new shiny gadgets. I lust after the sheer technical meticulousness of the construction of it. But I don’t think I’ll be buying an Apple Watch … at least, not yet. Maybe when it becomes more of a stand-alone device, or auto-syncs with an iPhone when it gets back within tethering range. Or, if over the next few months after it comes out I see uses that I hadn’t imagined that are compelling enough, then maybe I’ll consider buying one.

For right now, it seems to be an interesting beautiful toy that I kind of want, but can’t really justify buying. (If I could justify it, I’d get the 42mm version of this bad-boy, though).

  1. Or a couple of years farther back if you count from when the iPod Nano straps came out and the success of the original Pebble project pushed tech-watches back into the forefront of public consciousness, including my own.  ↩

  2. A Seamaster model 2532.80.00, which probably retailed for half of what that model goes for in near-mint condition now. Mine is nowhere near mint; it would probably be categorized as “well-abused”.  ↩

  3. According to an watch-enthusiast site, Omega Seamaster automatic models have an accuracy of –4 to +6 seconds per day  ↩

New Year's Resolutions

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. If I’m going to make a change, I do it right then. Why put it off until next year when you can Do it Now? Aside from falling back into bad habits [1], procrastination and basic laziness short-circuit most people’s attempts to establish new patterns.

It may take longer than you think to establish a new habit — depending on the behavior you’re trying to change — but that’s no reason to hold off on doing it until a particular date. Instead, you should start immediately.

Whatever you do, do it. Keep doing it. Make the changes in your life that you want to make. You can’t control the outside world, but you can change how you interact with it. So do it.

  1. For those who are aural learners, here’s the You Are Not So Smart podcast on extinction bursts.  ↩

The Quest to Automate my Workout Log

I recently spent more time than I really want to think about to change one tiny thing about my workout log workflow. I would have given up long before, but I’m stubborn, not being able to solve a problem — especially one I think I should be able to solve — tends to make me fixate on it, and I thought that what I learned would pay dividends in the long run.

You need a few apps to copy this specific workflow. However, I think it can serve as a more general example of how to chain multiple apps together.

First, you need at least Drafts 3 (apparently, this version is no longer available, but I’ve kept the link intact anyway). This is the linch-pin of the whole series of actions. The newly-released Drafts 4 will certainly work as well. Based on its predecessor, I insta-bought Drafts 4 when it came out, but haven’t fiddled with it much yet. Hell, as of this writing it’s still 50% off, so go buy it now!

Drafts is highly recommended for geek users — especially URL automators — but I would also recommend it as a very fast-launching and simple app for anyone who works with text a lot on their iPhones. I previously wrote about my writing workflow, which included a section on Drafts, or you could read about it on the developer’s website, Agile Tortoise.

You also need Dropbox; TextExpander (the new version now features a custom keyboard in iOS 8 so you can use your snippets in any app); Editorial (from the same guy who made Pythonista); Launch Center Pro; and Day One.

The main URL is called from Launch Center Pro, using its built-in support for automated URL encoding using double braces, i.e.: {{text to be encoded}}

drafts://x-callback-url/create?text=Notes/[textexpander:ldate]&action={{Copy to Clipboard}}&afterSuccess=Delete&x-success={{launch://x-callback-url/dropbox/clipboard?path={{[clipboard].txt}}&afterSuccess=Delete&x-success={{drafts://x-callback-url/create?text=[clipboard]&action={{Hashtag}}}}}}

Why do you need to encode parts of the action? If you don’t, then it won’t be interpreted properly. The action either won’t work at all, or will error-out at some point during the chain. I initially beat my head against the wall trying to get several layers of encoding to work, even going so far as to manually encode sections using online tools, but never got anything over 3 layers deep to work properly even though I swore it should work. This is part of why I had to call part of the process through a Drafts action, which I’ll detail later.

The TextExpander snippet ldate you see in in the first action expands into the date format I chose to use for my date tagging, ISO 8601 (see Randall Munroe’s brief argument for using it here). I use this date as the file name for my workout logs.

The above action:

  1. Creates a note in Drafts using TextExpander to generate the current date as essentially a variable in the action. Notes is the Dropbox directory where I keep all of my text notes. Then it …
  2. Copies that path to the clipboard, deletes the unnecessary draft, and throws it to Launch Center Pro, which,
  3. Appends a file extension, which is .txt in this case. (It caused me some frustration before I eventually found that some of my files, but not all, were in fact not plain text files, but had Markdown .md or MultiMarkdown .mmd extensions.) The action won’t work if you don’t specify an extension. I found out the hard way, through trial and error. Mostly the latter.
  4. This provides the path for Launch Center Pro’s built-in Dropbox action to get the text of a file previously saved in Dropbox.
  5. The contents of the retrieved file are fed back to Drafts as a new document.
  6. After Drafts gets this text, it runs the Hashtag action to continue the chain and again deletes the unneeded draft.

The Hashtag action in Drafts 3 was one I created to implement this chain. You can create your own URL actions by going into Settings → Custom Actions → URL Actions. You can create actions entirely in Drafts itself, which is no surprise considering that the spec for x-callback-url originated with Greg Pierce of Agile Tortoise.

(Shout out to Alex Guyot at The Axx for his Drafts URL creation snippets, which make typing this kind of stuff in iOS much easier, and which provided me with a helpful framework for the initial version of the URL. Also, his Drafts 3.0 Stress Test gave me some hints I needed to get the rest of the action working when it looked like I was insolvably roadblocked.)

The Hashtag action code is:


You can see that this action sends the text of the file we grabbed with Launch Center Pro to Editorial, which also runs an action I (unoriginally) named Hashtag. What does this do? After some abortive attempts to learn how to pipe things through Pythonista using the replace command, and being stymied by not knowing enough to get the output anywhere useful, I experimented with Editorial’s built-in find/replace tool. You can save really elaborate workflows, but all I needed was that simple character change from @ to #, so that’s what I used.

(I now know that I probably could have done this whole process in Editorial, without doing all this app jumping, but Editorial was literally the last app I installed in all this tinkering around, and giving up without making the x-callback-url work would have felt like defeat.)

Once Editorial does a search-and-replace, the output is fed back to Drafts, which sends it to Day One as a post, and deletes the superfluous draft.

Without the deletion actions, you’d end up with several drafts in your Drafts archive, unless your default is to delete a draft upon use. My default is to archive and occasionally purge, since sometimes I want to perform another action on the same draft, and in case something doesn’t work properly I don’t want to have to retype my note if I can just archive it.

The action does require interaction part of the way through. I actually don’t know for sure if it’s one of the apps involved (at a guess, probably Launch Center Pro), or a system dialog, but I do have to tap Allow to let part of the URL callback proceed. There is another minor interaction as Day One sees the hashtag and asks if I want to add it as a native tag. Of course I tap, “Yes” because that was the point of this overly-elaborate exercise.

So there you have it, a Rube Goldberg machine that jumps between 4 different iOS apps, and uses the capabilities of a 5th, all just so that I don’t have to copy and paste manually, position a cursor, and hit a delete key. Is It Worth the Time? Maybe.

By my earlier calculus, I’ve probably wasted several thousand yen of effort on this problem if you only consider the time saved. But, I also learned a lot about URL schemes and iOS automation, which I have already leveraged to create other time-and-effort saving actions. Plus, success! Nothing feels quite like solving a problem that had previously defeated you.

“Study Shows Blah-Blah-Blah”

Popular science articles almost always go with this kind of headline. The problem is that it’s almost always inaccurate. The vast majority of the time, when you check on the primary source, you find that the reporter hyped it, misinterpreted it, or is making some other error like citing a tiny study as conclusive. Even worse is when they phrase it as a question.

John Gruber at Daring Fireball has commented that if a tech article asks a question in the headline, you can safely assume that the answer to that question is “no”. “Is [insert ridiculous product name here] an iPad Killer?” Nope. The same applies to pop-sci articles.

I’m being charitable to the researchers by assuming that their research has simply been misinterpreted, but sometimes they’re overstating the case for their own research, as I’ve pointed out in the past. I deliberately phrased my headline in that piece as a question, because I was aping the usual pop-sci junk headline. It was still better than the original Atlantic title, since I removed the inflammatory “fad” and showed that the assertion was just flat wrong.

If you see an article with a headline like this: “Study Shows Foo and Also Bar!” you can safely assume that one of the following is probably true:

  • No it doesn’t.
  • It might, but the connection is tenuous.
  • It might, but needs confirmation.

You should always check the original research — which should be cited in even a semi-crappy article — to see for yourself what was actually published.

First Sasuke Competition

This is a section of the first ever Sasuke competition in 1997, which was also the only time it was held indoors. Sasuke was rebranded as Ninja Warrior for overseas consumption. The parent production company, Monster9, went into bankruptcy in 2011 and the future of Sasuke was in doubt for a while. The rights were eventually picked up by the Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) which had broadcast the competitions, and they relaunched the 28th competition as Sasuke Rising. The most recent 29th competition was held this past June. If TBS continues to produce the show on its (more or less) regular schedule, we might be able to watch the 30th competition during the New Years holidays.

The apparatus has gotten a bit more elaborate since then, but the design aesthetic has remained the same: sadistic Nintendo game-level designers, influenced by American Gladiators, make a real-life obstacle course. There are four levels, each increasingly harder. Just like in Super Mario Brothers, if you touch the water, you’re out.

To add to the difficulty, there’s a timer for the first, second, and fourth stages. There’s also an unspoken tradition that the course designers will make it harder every competition, especially if too many people make it past one of the stages. You never know before the competition exactly what obstacles you’ll be facing.

The First Stage usually has 85–90% attrition. There have been competitions where only a couple of people out of the starting 100 make it past the First Stage, and ones where no one at all makes it past the Second Stage. The Third Stage is untimed, but always features obstacles requiring great upper body and grip strength. Very few competitors who make it to the Third Stage have passed it even once. Those who have been successful multiple times can be counted on the fingers of one hand [1].

The Fourth Stage is always a grueling climb to the top of a tower. The first set of obstacles changes, but this stage always finishes with a rope climb of some length. The time limit has varied between 30 and 45 seconds, usually requiring the competitor to cover about 1 m or more of vertical distance per second. Total Victory (完全制覇) has been achieved only four times [2] to date.

While upper body strength is extremely important in later stages, speed, explosiveness, strength-endurance, and a certain amount of skill are also necessary to make it through even the First Stage obstacles. Many competitors get stuck on or fall off the log grip, the half-pipe attack, the warped wall, and the jump hang in the First Stage. Aside from catastrophic failures of strength or technique on the log grip, most failing competitors in the First Stage lack either the explosive power to clear something like the warped wall, or don’t have the combination of speed and endurance necessary to clear all the obstacles quickly enough to meet the time limit — usually under 2 minutes.

Just making it past the First Stage demonstrates that you’re a fairly well-rounded athlete. Achieving total victory shows that you’re an incredible one.

  1. With one left over. Nagano Makoto, Urushihara Yûji, Ômori Akira, and Yamamoto Shingo are the only four competitors in the 16 year history of the competition to complete the Third Stage more than once.  ↩

  2. And by only three individuals: in the 4th competition by Kazuhiko Akiyama, the 17th by Nagano Makoto, and in the 24th and 27th by Urushihara Yuuji. (Source: Wikipedia — List of Sasuke Competitions  ↩

The Role of Form in Crossfit Workouts

The CrossFit community has taken the wrong lesson from Glassman’s recent statements on form. Paraphrased:

Your intensity should be high enough that you have some form breaks during the workout. If you’re picture-perfect on every rep, you’re not pushing hard enough.

Some people have taken this to mean that form doesn’t matter. It does. The better your form is, the more reps you can do with the same amount of energy expended.

Take a look at one of the older videos of the Burgeners doing Grace. Notice how good their form is throughout. Also notice that these world-class Olympic lifters both do have some slight form breaks during the workout. That’s probably the right level of intensity.

Why did their form break down? It’s not because they don’t know how to do it properly. Hell, they’ve both done so many lifts that they’re probably within a centimeter or so of the same line in competition and on practice lifts. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be making competition-level lifts at all. Their form broke down because they were fatigued. It’s not necessarily desirable for their form to break; they’re so highly trained that they were undoubtedly fighting for perfect form every single rep. It was, however, inevitable that their form would break down to some extent during the workout due to the format and pacing.

More recent videos from the CrossFit Journal show Jeff Tucker critiquing and correcting the form of affiliates at an affiliate event. A CrossFit affiliate is in practice a trainer, often the head or sometimes the only trainer at the affiliated gym. One of the things I think is both the best and worst point of CrossFit’s organization is that everyone is encouraged to become a trainer. It’s great because it encourages everyone to fully participate by giving back to others through training and coaching.

It’s bad because affiliation is effectively open to anyone who simply invests the time and money to gain that certification. They don’t have to demonstrate more than very basic competence in a handful of movements. HQ leaves most of the quality screening to the community and the individual affiliates. And to be fair, this libertarian approach works pretty well, most of the time.

These people were recorded while attending a clinic to work on these movements, so they were obviously aware of their weaknesses and were trying to correct them, which is to their credit. But, I think that this is indicative of a weak point in CrossFit training, one that I think will (or at least should) be addressed by HQ, sooner or later. I think that the standards for movement should be more strict, and certification should be contingent on meeting that higher standard.

Slop is crap. You should strive for perfect form on everything. The WOD should not be the starting and end point for CrossFit. You should do skill work at virtually every session to perfect your form, and you should do supplementary work to shore up specific movement weaknesses. The WOD is your main workout, yes, but it should not be the only thing you do.

Glassman used to say that part of CrossFit is learning new sports and skills. Maybe he’s changed his mind about that, but I think that was a great admonition to give a group of new converts, who all too often fall into zealotry in their early enthusiasm and put on blinders that exclude anything but their chosen path. Glassman also used to say that “virtuosity”, which is learning movements to a high level of skill, was an element of CrossFit. That means you should learn and practice skills that standard CrossFit WODs don’t often address, and learn to do them well, if not necessarily to perfection. Can doing yoga or playing golf improve your WOD times? Possibly, if it addresses one or more of your weaknesses.

This is not an either/or proposition. Every weakness you address also increases your strengths. Greg Amundson wrote a CrossFit Journal article (The Chink in My Armor) about how his inability to do double-unders kept him from qualifying for the 2009 CrossFit Games…and how addressing this specific weakness led to an improvement in his box jump cycle time, his 400 m sprint time, and firearms accuracy and speed.

Amundson is one of the original firebreathers, who has been doing CrossFit for years. Just look at the guy; he’s built like a demi-god. Yet his deficient skill in jumping rope — one of the things that actually does come up in WODs occasionally — kept him from even qualifying to compete. Similarly, a softball throw effectively knocked out thirteen male competitors at the last CrossFit Games.

Skills matter. Accuracy matters. Form matters.

Work on your form, and your times will improve. Work on your form before you ramp up intensity or rep count. Make sure that you have sufficient strength and control to have virtually perfect form on gymnastic movements, like muscle ups, and skill-dependent movements, like the Olympic lifts, before you start doing high-rep WODs with those movements. You should be working singles, triples, sets of five at the most, and be capable of doing them with perfect form before you tackle something high-rep or high-weight with a time component.

If you don’t learn proper form, you’re just drilling yourself in inefficient movements that will take easily twice as much remedial work to fix later as it would have to learn the movements correctly in the first place. You’ll be stalling on lifts that you have the physical strength to do, and that plateau in progress will also keep you from increasing your strength to your fullest potential until you do the remedial work to train out your mistakes — if that’s even possible with thousands of bad reps drilled into your movement patterns. You’ll be losing time to wasted energy that didn’t go into moving the bar or your body through space.

That’s assuming you don’t injure yourself somewhere around rep 63 of the new WOD, “That Bitch Sarah”, because your form was so bad that you looked like an arthritic chimpanzee.