Sunday, November 30, 2008

Does Cardio Interfere with Strength Training? How 'bout "no."

A question that strength trainees ask at some point:
doesn't endurance (cardio) training interfere with strength training?

Great Question: Initially, starting in 1980 with Hickson, continuing through the 90's, as described in this super review by Andrew Burne, the answer was pretty much "yes."

Even more recent literature still seems to show that there is some interference effect, depending on volume/intensity of the types of training. More recently (2006) there has been a super article that says, ok, based on the findings that more consistently than not show an impact on explosive resistance training, let's consider what the molecular mechanisms are that may be involved to better tune training.

There's a couple new studies, however, lead by Davis [1][2] that revisits this issue of assumed "interference." These studies are interesting on their own, but are particularly useful for reviewing the key ideas around when and how interference happens, if it happens, and why keeping that VO2max KB work in with the strength program is a Good Thing - though there's some other mixes that may have awesome results, too.

Davis is the researcher who in Jan 2008 showed that the effect on delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) can be mitigated by doing some cardio between sets (consider accelerated fast and loose) rather than just resting. He and his group seem to be applying similar protocols to strength training. That is, in the first Davis study, he had a group do serial concurrent exercise protocols (CE = strength and endurance) and what he defines as "integrated." Serial means that the group did their resistance training, then they did their aerobic stuff. The participants rested between sets of their lifts. Pretty standard prescription.
In the "integrated" version, participants did their aerobic work *during* their lifts, effectively between sets. Their heart rates were significantly higher across the complete period of their resistance trainng than their serial colleagues. This is not standard. How many times have you heard "leave your cardio till after your workout; you'll tire yourself out and won't be able to lift"

Here's the kicker: the results. First, the cool thing is we're talking well conditioned participants, not newbies (what i don't know is if they're new to resistance though), but second, the results will surprise you: the mean lower body strength of the serial group went up 17.2%. Not bad at all. The mean lower body strength of the integrated group, however, went up 23.3%. Intriguingly, gains in UPPER body strength were higher in the Serial group than the integrated. As for Endurance, both groups made big improvements; the integrated made more. As for body composition, not surprisingly perhaps, the integrated group was significantly better: 3.3% for integrated, vs 1.8% for serial.

The main take away, according to the authors, is that when compared to single mode training for strength, the concurrent exercise, both serial and integrated, made as good or better gains than single mode. So take that, interference ideas. Also, that by going "integrated" the gains across every marker (but upper body strength), were better in integrated practice.

A cool thing also shown is that there seems to be considerable benefit to strength by adding a Range of Motion cool down, rather than just strength work alone (if you don't have ROM work, consider some zhealth (overview of Z)).

The overview of interference by the authors:
  • Many studies have postulated that training frequency is a variable as to whether or not interference occurs. There's nothing conclusive: "Evidence for the training frequency hypothesis is therefore suggestive but equivocal."
  • Poor (untrained) physical condition of participants in studies has also been suggested as a factor for interference (or not) "Most studies cited here that report interference from CE used untrained or sedentary subjects, whereas most studies cited here that report absence of interference or synergy used well-trained subjects. Studies reporting absence of interference or synergy in medium- to high-frequency concurrent training protocols invariably used well-conditioned subjects" Most of these studies looked at effects on endurance athletes, it seems, not the other way around, and that's where the money is for most strength athletes like hard style kettlebellers.
  • The usual hypothesis that timing of aerobic vs resistance work is a key factor, eg aerobics before, after or during resistance, isn't well established either. "The few studies that have evaluated exercise timing and sequence during concurrent training therefore suggest a possible effect, but its nature and prerequisites are unclear."
The authors suggest that their study adds credence to the hypotheses that more benefit accrues to the better trained athlete when adding endurance to strength work rather than strength work alone, and that frequency and sequencing of training are factors.

Ok, i'll go along with the study showed that there were benefits of adding vigorous cardio (and ROM cool down) to strength. Great. It's also pretty clear that keeping your heart rate up (not resting between sets) is also a benefit to strength. This approach well supports and advances what Pavel's written about not sitting down between sets but keeping your heart up (see Enter The Kettlebell (review) as an example with its discussion of what to do between sets), though the rationale there was not particularly because it *improved* strength gains or reduced DOMS (as far as i recall, anyway).

What i don't quite see tested, and so not supported in the article is the critical issue of frequency. The authors claim that their work is "consistent" with other research on frequency. Which? the work that has shown that negative impacts with more days a week vs fewer days a week? or work that showed even low doses were troubling? The authors picked a nice middle-of-the-road protocol of 3 days a week for training and ONLY three days a week and got nice results.

We do know, that for whatever the myriad of factors, total density of training is a factor in any training plan, balancing recovery and effort, as Kenneth Jay keeps telling me, more an art than a strict science. It's not hard to believe, therefore, that tagging on additional effort to an already loaded program, could have a negative impact, whether resistance or cardio.

So why might the "integrated" approach be a goodie? Davis et al don't know. They have a really neat hypothesis, though, related to their earlier work on "cardioaccleration" and DOMS (remember, they found doing cardio between sets reduced DOMS).
[T]he time course of DOMS reduction and elimination in both men and women trained in the integrated CE protocol is similar to the known time course of skeletal muscle angiogenesis, which may increase muscle perfusion during resistance exercise in the integrated CE group. The same mechanism could account for the apparent synergy of strength and endurance training in the integrated CE group. DOMS signifies contraction-induced muscle damage and consequent reduced capacity to generate muscular power for up to 72 hours (60), implying reduced responsiveness to strength training even in low-frequency (2 days per week) training protocols, whereas enhanced muscle perfusion increases muscle performance by up to 20% (44). The elimination of DOMS and consequent faster muscle recovery combined with enhanced muscle perfusion in the integrated CE protocol could therefore increase training adaptations compared with the serial CE protocol, as found in the present study, perhaps through the mechanism of enhanced postactivation potentiation of muscle responses to resistance exercises (11,12).
In other words, their integrated approach is reducing DOMS which means faster recovery, which means accelerated growth/performance.

When the DOMS article first came out, colleagues said they wouldn't want to sacrifice performance just to reduce DOMS - in other words the cardio during resistance would take away from the effort they could put in - they hypothesized. This latest study shows the reverse seems to be the case.

What does this CE result mean for our training?
Enhanced training adaptations from integrated CE, combined with the potentially related elimination of DOMS (15) and consequent faster muscle recovery (21), therefore have the potential to improve training and clinical outcomes in exercise programs at all levels.
It's worth looking at the article for exactly what intensity is being described in the CE protocol. Saying that, one of the big takeaways from the study is that, if the frequency is right (don't overdo your training. duh), and if you're already well conditioned, intense cardio + resistance are better for strength than strength work alone. If you want to take these benefits further, and enhance recovery, there's an opportunity to "integrate" resistance and "vigorous" / intense cardio.

So for folks who have been mixing up or integrating strength and intense cardio already (see the end of the Cardio/VO2Max article for examples of such protocols), this research just seems to add more support for the value of the approach for strength. What this result means for the rest of us? Well balanced CE programs are better for strength than strength training alone.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

How much Rest between Sets and Why Strong Side First

Quick common questions, quick answers, and more detail available:

What side to i start? Strong or Weak?
It may seem counter intuitive, but when doing work with weights, one side at a time, start with your STRONGer side first. Here's more on why over at IAMFIT.

How Long should i Rest Between Sets: This is a common question. The answer, as usual, is "it depends"

There are pretty well-studied relationships between load, rep volume, rest and muscular effect (strenght/power, hypertrophy, endurance). In an article for DD (editor Pavel and Brett Jones), i walk through some of what the consensus in the literature is about rest between sets.

Overview based on energy systems:
  • Strength/Power - Phosphagen System mainly -
    full recharge needs 2-5 minutes based on a high load few rep set.
    Can add volume (no. of sets) without changing rep scheme or break length
  • Muscle Fiber Building/Hypertrophy or just want to get to somewhat longer sets.
    Taxing Glycolytic system and growht hormone triggering -
    recovery is not full recharge
    6-10 reps at 75% load-ish, 30sec - 1.5 mins rest
  • Endurance - want to just keep going.
    Tapping into oxidative system with
    50%'ish RM loads (or less) lighter loads, longer sets, less breaks - 10-15 reps with 30 secs breaks, max, if trained; longer if not.
For insights into why the above, please do see the whole article. Let me know what you think.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Cardio Workouts with Kettlebells vs VO2max KB workouts

There's been some discussion on the DD forum of late of what constitutes Cardio workouts, and what are optimal KB routines for cardio. It may be that we need to get our terms agreed. There's a difference between high intensity interval work (like Kenneth Jay's VO2max Protocols, such as the original, below
and now included in KJ's book, Viking Warrior Conditioning, reviewed here) that has great benefit for the cardio vascular system, and workouts that are considered "cardio" because they themselves work *in* an energy zone that is aerobic (like the Running the Bells routine that can work through a few energy systems)

The goal of this post is to go over
  • what it means to be working IN the aerobic or anaerobic zones
  • How VO2Max fits into this scheme
  • Where aerobic efforts fit in
  • where all out anaerobic efforts way beyond VO2max may fit in
  • why variety rather than just swings or just snatches (eccentrics) may be important for routines
  • some inspiration for rich cardio KB routines
Aerobic/Anaerobic. First, quick difference between cardio/aerobic and anaerobic effort. The cardiovasular (CV) system - our heart and lungs - make use, not surprisingly, of Oxygen. Moving O2 through the blood is a big deal. Workouts that keep our bodies privileging the use of O2 generally mean that our hearts are not going above around 70-75% of our max heart rates. That's Aeroibic - with oxygen.

Going beyond that heart rate means that we go anaerobic (without oxygen - which is kinda a misnomer because we're always using oxygen while we're breathing, or we'd be dead in short order). Going anaerobic means that we're taxing other energy systems than the oxidative. Depending on the effort, this is either privileging the glycolytic (the value of carbohydrates) or phosphagen (think creatine as important in this mix).

Aerobic Test. Here's a test to see if you're in that kinda effort if you don't feel like wearing a monitor. Can you keep up a conversation without sucking for air? Why is this a test? If you can talk WHILE doing you're activity, you're in a zone using air predominantly for effort. And that's a state most athletes desire: more work from the oxidative system.

Glycogen Sparing. What all these energy systems have in common is producing energy to enable muscles to contract. Different intensities of effort call upon different systems, but all of them are working to create the compound ATP which enables muscle contractions. As said, the primary fuel for the oxidative system is fat; the primary/preferred fuel for the glycolytic is carbs (sugars). We have more stored fat in our bodies than carbs/sugars. Pinch an inch and you'll see this is so. Sugars get stored mainly in our muscles, blood and liver. Fat is well, everywhere: it surrounds us. So wouldn't it be great if we could push the threshold at which we had to use those precious carbs further off, if we could do more work in fat world than sugar world?

There's several ways that folks work to achieve this. Two are (a) doing cardio work (often also called endurance training) in the aerobic zone in order to build up mitochondria, and (b) doing anaerobic intervals at the VO2Max threshold to keep nudging that threshold further off - to enable the amount of work that can be done in Fat Burning world to be greater before flipping over to tapping into Sugar use. Note the distinction between these two approaches: cardio effort means staying in a heart rate that is aerobic; Vo2Max intervals is anaerobic, meaning we're working the anaerobic systems. *BOTH* have benefit for the cardio system, but only ONE is working out in the aerobic system.

VO2Max. Given the above distinction between anerobic and aerobic efforts, Kenneth Jay's VO2max protocol is NOT a cardio workout per se because its intervals are designed of necessity to be anaerobic (on a heart rate monitor this would look like 85% of maximum). It has great benefit to the CV system because it is working VO2max levels to improve how much work can happen aerobically. It is also focused (and used to be strongly tied with) Lactic Acid threshold work: the higher the VO2max capacity, the greater the ability to process lactic acid. If lactic acid builds up beyond the point it can be used, it gets in the way of ATP production, causing fatigue, cramps and any number of issues that affect performance.

But CV workouts - or workouts that ARE CV oriented usually mean workouts that keep a person in a cv region, 70-80% of MaxHR. That's work.

Aerobic Workouts - Workouts that stay using the Aerobic/Oxidative system. These kinds of workouts are particularly useful if you're goal is to lose weight since they're spending time and energy in the fat burning heart rate range (privileging fat for fuel rather than glucose/lactic acid/phosphates). It's also been argued by folks like Casandra Forsythe and Alwyn Cosgrove that they're also great to do *after* a HIIT session for both recovery and to burn off some of the fat that's been mobilized but not used by the HIIT session itself.

If weight loss is not your goal, some folks suggest you may not need to spend as much time doing CV, as there's a lot of value in HIIT work for endurance/cardio. Even if you are doing weight loss work, according to John Berardi, blending lower rates of cardio into high intensity work is good for balancing calls on our nervous system:
high intensity work stimulates the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) while low intensity work stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest).
Also, as said above, another benefit of cardio work is to enhance mitochondria. These are the little elements of cells that DO that aerobic energy work with the O2. Going beyond 80% MaxHR - going outside the aerobic zone - has not been seen as optimal for mitochondria focus. My understanding is that there's an hypoxic effect on mitochondria when going anaerobic, and that impacts mitochonrdria hyperplasia (the reproduction of these cells).

Again, mitochondria are key tools for fat burning/fat loss, so developing them is a Good Idea. They're also great for endurance work: more mitochondria, it seems, less lactate production. More mitochondria doesn't mean much enhancement to V02Max. But better V02max doesn't mean necessarily better performance. Isn't that interesting. As George Brooks and Co. put it in Exercise Physiology, if better Vo2max meant better performance, competitions could just be held in labs.

To be as cutting edge as possible, there's some very recent work on SIT or Sprint Interval Training that's shown some interesting mitochondrial effects. I'm still parsing through the study, but the initial claim is that all out sprints against resistance for 30secs (Wingate Test), repeated 3 times (around 500watt power output) three times a week, was equivalent to 40-60 mins at around 120watts 5 days a week.

While this sounds very intriguing, it's important to remember that Wingates are *not* VO2max intervals. VO2max - especially as Kenneth Jay sets them up, are very cadence specific to keep you within the VO2max zone. 85% of MaxHR rather than 80%, for instance of that upper aerobic zone. Wingate/sprints are *all out* efforts that push to the real heart thumping, way past lactate threshold level. They are focused on testing anaerobic rather than aerobic capacity. That means they're hard. Brutal is a word often used to describe them, because they are at the edge of capacity. Folks doing three REPEATS of these three times a week would already need to be in Very Good shape. Incredible shape. I know athletes who after one of these tests are fried for the next day or two - understandably so.

Also, the authors acknowledge that they're not clear on what's going on at this extreme effort space that's causing this particular oxidative adaptation that's only been seen before in ET

While the present study demonstrates the potency of SIT to elicit changes in muscle oxidative capacity and selected metabolic adjustments during exercise that resemble ET, the underlying mechanisms are unclear. From a cell signalling perspective, exercise is typically classified as either 'strength' or 'endurance', with short-duration, high-intensity work usually associated with increased skeletal muscle mass, and prolonged, low- to moderate-intensity work associated with increased mitochondrial mass and oxidative enzyme activity (Baar, 2006). Given the oxidative phenotype that is rapidly up-regulated by SIT, it is possible that metabolic adaptations to this type of exercise could be mediated in part through signalling pathways normally associated with traditional ET.
In other words the 02 deficit may be SO HIGH after this effort your body may up-regulate O2 consumption afterwards, which impacts the aerobic system. So it might be the rest intervals during and post the effort where the aerobic ET-like adaptation is occurring. Dunno. Speculation.

So if you're thinking about oxidative benefit, and don't care about personally wanting/needing to burn more fuel to lose weight (the volume of work in this protocol was a tenth the KJoules (calories) burned in the trad ET protocol), and have the capacity to go extreme repeatedly and not collapse (spending the time you would on the bike on a faceplant in the carpet, for instance), this may be an approach for you, but that does seem to mean getting onto a stationary bike rather than swinging a kettlebell since thinking about form while thinking about intensity to get that level of heart pounding may be a bit of a challenge.

Who would want to do this extreme protocol?
you may ask. Well, one scenario would be if you're an endurance athlete, putting miles on your body already, reducing time/volume on training may be a plus. Or another scenario: you want to begin competition as an endurance athlete and want to build up that oxidative capacity without putting in the usual training time to get that endurance effect. Right now, transfer of this experiment to practical training is likely largely speculation. The above is very much bleeding edge research. Other labs are looking at other protocols like shorter intervals (thank god), so this is a space to watch.

And just an aside about intervals - there's a real passion in some KB circles for Vo2Max intervals. I mention, just in passing, that some researchers working with elite athletes have shown that 1V02max Session/week is just as beneficial to performance as 3 (nice overview here). So far, to my knowledge, Vo2max KB intervals have not been equally evaluated. Doesn't mean there's anything wrong with them, or any lack of anecdotal praise, just that they haven't been peer reviewed, so we don't know how they compare with other V02Max methods, or with 1 vs three sessions per week, or or or. Likewise there's a very well sustained critique of intervals as the be-all-end-all of cardio at Lyle McDonald's blog (see this summary of these potsts), in particular how they will fit in with other training. There's also some interesting finds in cycling that show that for sport performance, intervals are great training for well, intervals. So maybe high level steady state has a role, too? Now i'm a passionate interval-er for fat loss and general perfomance, but i'm also open to less or other may be more, too. Just a thought.

Update: The McDonald work is largely a critique of the obsession with HIIT intervals as the main way to lose fat, not a critique of the benefit/effectiveness of intervals per se.
Also important to note that when we talk about "intervals" we aren't ALWAYS talking about VO2Max efforts. Indeed, it seems one doesn't have to work at 100% VO2max, like Kenneth's protocols do, to have an effect on VO2Max, nor are intervals the only way to impact VO2max. Over a 6 week period, people who worked out at 50% of their V02 reserve (a measure of VO2 capacity equivalent to Heart Rate Reserve) had a 10% increase in their VO2Max. This was with steady state and intervals at these intensities. Now, that said, the OPTIMAL impact on VO2Max was the interval group with "near maximal" (at 95% VO2R) effort. Here's the poop:
It should be noted that although interval training groups spend some of their training time at a very high intensity, a similar amount of time is spent at a lower intensity, and therefore the mean intensity of training may not be any higher than that of a continuous training program. In the current study, the interval training group used 5 min each for the work and the recovery phases of the intervals and had an average intensity of 72% HRR, which is slightly less than the 75% HRR of the vigorous [the steady state -mc] group. The work-recovery periods of Helgerud et al.[16] were 4 min at ∼93% HRmax and 3 min at 70% HRmax, for a mean intensity of 83% HRmax in the interval group, whereas one of the continuous groups used 85% HRmax. Warburton et al.[37] used 2 min at 90% HRR and 2 min at 40% HRR for the work and the recovery phases, yielding a mean intensity of 65% HRR in the interval group, and had the continuous training group use 65% HRR. Wisloff et al.[38] used 4-min work phases at ∼93% HRmax and 3-min recovery phases at 60% HRmax, for a mean intensity of 79% HRmax in the interval group, and used ∼73% HRmax in the continuous training group. Despite the similarity of mean intensity between the interval and the continuous training groups, the interval groups in all of these studies experienced greater improvements in aerobic fitness after training. Therefore, although intensity is a key variable in cardiorespiratory training (as shown by comparing the two continuous training groups in this study), the mean intensity may not be as important as the highest intensity that is used for a significant portion of the training. A topic for future research is to determine what portion of training should be done at high intensities and using what work-recovery periods to obtain the greatest results [emphasis -mc].
And another interesting find in support of high intensity intervals - though again not necessarily VO2max (no info in the study on that point), is a recent study on rowing (an activity that KJ argues is similar to KB'ing). It shows that doing endurance work is actually pretty important if doing resistance work for the heart - to keep it elastic (endurance benefit) rather than thickening it (effect of heavy resistance work). Their rowers, they said, did 65% of their work at "high-intensity" - though that's not further defined. The conclusion is, "Our results suggest that simultaneously performed endurance training may negate the stiffening effects of strength training."

So HIIT, in any case, has a at least a few roles in heart health, though the benefit is not restricted to having to do super high intensity efforts. Which brings us to the roles of aerobic efforts.

KB's and Cardio
All the above has been pretty much by way of preamble to address the question: what's a great way to do CARDIO work with kettlebells?

By now, it's clear the answer to this question breaks down into two parts, stemming from "what do you mean by cardio?"
  1. If your goal is to improve the max amount of oxygen you can use before going anaerobic, you're likely doing ANAEROBIC intervals for VO2Max training to have the side effect of increasing AEROBIC work capacity by pushing out out the VO2Max threshold
  2. If your goal is to enhance mitochondrial density to improve oxidative capacity for energy/endurance and/or for fat burning, you'll likely want to be doing work in the CARDIO/AEROBIC zone throughout the workout
Kettlebells can be used for both types of workouts. On the VO2max side, Kenneth Jay has the best known approaches. On the cardio/staying aerobic side, there's a plethora of alternatives. I'm focusing on that latter approach here cuz it's less often discussed in the Hard Style scene.

Snatches, Swings, Possible Overuse Considerations. On the DD forums, for Cardio (of the steady state/aerobic type) lots of folks have said either do lots of snatches or lots of swings.

Yes that will certainly break a sweat, but that's also very eccentric contraction focused. And if you're powering the down stroke on the swing/snatch, it's lots of overspeed eccentric focused work. That's where the money is, as KJ will tell you.

Now, too much of any one action has historically been shown eventually to lead to problems like RSI, arthritis, joint injury etc. The KB community in the US hasn't been going long enough to correlate such problems - but overuse is overuse - and we only get one body, and we see such overuse problems in other sports, and it might be folly to see KB'ing as any different. What's the equivalent of Tennis Elbow in the KB world?

With respect to eccentric-oriented exercise, a meta study of the research literature around eccentrics shows that they can actually increase insulin resistance. Whether this is the case in KB's overspeed eccentrics, well that hasn't been tested. BUT there are some interesting patterns out there. And just by way of background, again, to stay lean and mean and hormonally sound, insulin resistance is NOT a good thing.

As said, Kenneth maps Rowing and KB (snatching?) as biomechanically similar. I've asked if the overspeed eccentrics of KB snatching as described above mayn't be a distinguishing marker, so am keen to hear back, since if this is a difference, we can't assume rowing = kb'ing.

Variety is the Spice of KB Cardio. So, just a thought - why not think about ways to add a variety of moves for KB cardio rather than focusing on sessions that are eccentric dominant?

If you look at the vids on Tracy's blog, you'll see that as the Queen of Weight Loss with KB's, she goes for that kind of variety: swings, snatches, squats, presses - all mixed up getting good range of motion on the joints rather than over repetition of any one approach. Likewise Mike Mahler's High Octane Cardio (HOC) mixes up kettlebell moves with running, skipping, pull ups. Awesome.

If you feel like paying money to have a collection of some great Cardio/Strength KB routines put together in one nice package that you can follow along, here's a review of an Art of Strength workout, also lots of variety that will keep your heart pumping and give you a solid workout, too.

Update: there's a followup to this integrated intense cardio/resistance blend in a new blog post "does cardio intefere with strength training? how 'bout no?"

Combined of course with some joint mobility like ZHealth drills (what are these?) to balance out joint work for full ROM, add in some NEPA's, and you're rocking. BONUS: Indeed, the new post in the update above has research that shows ROM work supports/enhances strength training.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Coming back to Kettlebell Front Squat Form: head, eyes, sequencing strength

Awhile ago i posted a vid of Will Williams demo'ing the kettlebell front squat for particular emphasis on Will's breathing. That breathing pattern demonstrates what Pavel's presented as "power breathing" to optimize the stiffening of the core to get the optimal leverage for heavy lifts to build strength. Breath is not held. And that's the rather tricky part in a repetitious move like a front squat series, which Will does so well (another variant of breathing for heavy lifts in particular is something called the Valsalva Manouver which i touch on for reference only, and where breath is held).

Also in that discussion of the Front Squat, i noted a concept learned from ZHealth (overview) that Eric Cobb calls Bone Ryhthm, with a video and discussion by Mike T. Nelson demonstrating with a DL. In brief, the idea of bone rythmn applied to a front squat would be that the movement of the knees forward finishes with the butt back. Looking at Will's vid, the knees finish moving before the hips are down at parallel.

In practicing with folks, getting bone rythmn in the front squat to happen generally means speeding up the descent of the hips so that the hips come down in time with the movement of the knees: both joints at the end of the same bone finish their movement together. When balancing the joints on each end of the bone like this, it's like the body gets in phase with itself, and that synergy of the lever timing (joint at knees; joint at hips, like the way an oil well pumps) seems to effect more power.

So let's say we have breathing down, and we have rhythm down. I've been experimenting with another concept learned from Eric Cobb on spine alignment and eye position.

A core concept in Zhealth is "tall spine." Tall spine means, if i have heard it right, keeping the spine in neutral alignment, and thinking about the vertebrae having spaces between them - not getting crushed or squished, but free to move through their full range of motion. The idea in Z is to keep the spine in that tall *neutral* (not over extended) position throughout athletic activities.

Head Position What does that "tall spine" mean in the KB Front Squat? Well i dunno about you, but when i'm in the decent position, with my butt down, my head sorta tilts back, which rather squishes the vertebrae in the neck, or the cervical spine, as they go into extension (see middle pane of xray image below). This squishing is NOT good for strength.

In fact, i've seen a compelling demonstration of a hamstring muscle test where someone with their head in neutral, with strong hamstrings then cocks their head back, and it's like those hamstrings go to zero. Not kidding.

This effect of strengthening/weakening has been dubbed the arthrokinetic reflex. This means something is happening around a joint. Arthrokinematics refers to the possible movements of joints. So the arthrokinetic reflex research has looked at connexions between joint mobilization and muscular strength.

Applied to the front squat, this means there's benefit to that tall spine position, as that's a position of optimal mobility - nothing's squished. Now, i find if the head position stays in neutral to keep the spine aligned in neutral, i feel like i'm looking a bit down when in the down position of the KB front squat. And that's ok; that's aligned. Trying a few sets trying to remember to keep my head neutral did in fact feel smoother and streonger in the Front Squat. Felt a little funny at first, but i've found it's worth the practice.

There's one more thing that can benefit this refined strength practice: eye position.

Eye Position. Again, from the ZHealth R-Phase Certification, one of the things we learned is that eye position corrolates with muscle action: flexion is enhanced by looking down; extension by looking up. Cobb has writen about this over at DragonDoor:
How does [eye position] apply to your lifts? It's quite simple, really. The small nerve endings in the extraocular muscles actually create full body muscular responses to help guide movement. Practically speaking, what this means is that if your eyes are moved up, the small nerve endings in the extraocular muscles facilitate the extensor muscles of the body, creating a simultaneous inhibition of the flexor muscles. Conversely, the eyes down position will create flexor facilitation and extensor inhibition. Put simply, the eyes lead the body.
Applied to the front squat, this means while doing the descent, the eyes look down to support leg flexion. When coming UP, keeping the head neutral, but eyes looking UP enhances the extension of the legs. Try it and see if that feels stronger, smoother, less effortful.

Sequencing What to Learn First There's a lot to take in for this simple move of going up and down with a kettlebell or two: bone ryhthmn, breathing, head position, eye movement. When learning these moves, where does one start? Well, again, drawing on ZHealth and its emphasis on efficiency, it puts it this way:
  1. Perfect Form - hitting the target - so in the kettlebell front squat for me this would be getting teh KB into the correct position and going down and up with bone rythmn. Picking a weight that lets me get in lots of reps or sets of reps to get form drilled in. One might also say head and eye position is part of this Perfect Form, and it complements bone rythmn.
  2. Dynamic Postural Alignment - in atheletic moves this does mean keeping tall/neutral spine throughout actions - resetting to neutral. In the front squat, as part of perfect form, this DPA is achieved with the head/eye position work.
  3. Synchronize Respiration - no. 3 in the cycle is breathing. In the front squat, this breathing practice becomes more important as weight goes up, to ensure proper stability of the trunk. So the take away here is: get the physical form perfected first, then, work in breathing.
  4. Balance Tension and Relaxation - in kettelbell practice tension and relaxation balance are constant themes. Intriguingly, in this sequence this is also a crucial relationship, but not a primary focus: it's fourth, after form, alignment, and breath. In the hardstyle kettlebell world that would mean that the move towards strength ("tension is strength" to quote Pavel) comes only AFTER the form.
While these concepts are all familiar to kettlebell practitioners, a questions may arise such as how long AFTER the form is perfected does the real strength work come into play? Does this sequence mean having to get the first one entirely at the unconscious activity level before proceeding to the next step?

Maybe we should switch the focus around a little bit. The above four steps provide a set of heuristics for a coach or individual to check in with in their own practice. Is bone ryhthm in the front squat locked in? What about head and eye position? if not why, not stay with a weight that will not compromise form (ie cause a lot of breathing requirements to lift the weight; cause a lot of tension to be called into play).

There's LOTS of work that can be done while getting right with that form (to say nothing of the enduring value of bodyweight work). Indeed, something i've been trying in a Grease the Groove (GTG) kind of way, is just to do a lot of body weight front squats, focusing on feeling the rythmn and keeping my head/eyes position working. These reps can be done anytime/anywhere. And reps=habits, or the ability to execute a pattern without conscious thought. I want to be able to get in sufficient form reps to have as a base for the more challenging heavy work or longer sequences for strength/power work where breath/tension/relatxation become more critical.

Indeed, as part of that work, and to complete the cycle from form to tension, Pavel comments: " On the "tall spine": make sure that the emphasis on the cue does not inhibit the lats and the diaphragm."

If you are practicing any of these components of the front squat, let me know how it's going.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Stand UP (or lie down) to work out

Over at iamgeekfit, there's a wee piece on why just about any position besides seated is a good idea for working out - especially if you're concerned about your low back health.
Now you might say well rowing is seated, but back researcher stuart mcgill has an article that should be out soon on this point relative to spine work:
Fenwick, C.M.J., Brown, S.H.M., McGill, S.M. (accepted March 2008) Comparison of different rowing exercises: Trunk muscle activation, and lumbar spine motion, load and stiffness. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
And let's face it, rowing's most common complaint/injury is the lower back. Cycling too? Well most experts who work with cyclists/rowers may tell you the problems there are poor technique or overuse rather than something fundamental to the posture.

Indeed, the inspiration for the above post is McGill's work in the Ultimate Back Fitness book about the problems with being seated - for anything. What we may take from McGill's work on sitting=bad is that for resistance training and sports work, there are so many alternatives to sitting, that it begs the question, why *train* seated? There seem to be way more benefits overall to carrying out those military presses standing rather than seated; that chest press prone, rather than seated, that considering the issues with the posture, it's hard to defend.

And for any posture, if you have pain, please don't move into it. There are alternatives! may i recommend dynamic joint mobility work like zhealth?

Happy training!

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Rif Signs Off

Mark Reifkind's blog has gone offline - links to it will return a "by invitation only" to read now. After 4 years of near daily blogging, Mark is shifting gears.

Mark Reifkind is known to many in the hardstyle kettlebell community not only for being a Master Intstructor of the Pavel Hardstyle RKC, but perhaps especially for a resource he created for the community: his workout blog, and now, after four plus years, he's signing off.

Perhaps running a workout blog mayn't sound like much in particular - there are so many folks who have a workout blog.

But in the RKC space at least, Rif's Blog is a big reason why there are so many RKC blogs. And his is the Gold Standard, and that for several reasons.

First, Rif's a respected athlete: gymnastics and powerlifting background who came to kettlebells early. He's been there since the formative days. Having a blog to trace his experience in using this New Tool, the Russian Kettlebell, assessing it, meant something to others curious, thinking about dipping their toe into this water.

Second, besides letting others vicariously assess and be inspired by his findings, Rif shared more than workout logs: he shared insights in figuring out how to work through his various aches and pains, and these were grounded in an understanding of the musculature of the body. That he logged his progress through his pain towards healing and strength gave a reality check on where others might be thinking about turning for their own rehab.

Third, Rif helps: some of the most helpful tips are on Rif's blog. The format of the VO2max Dane of Pain drills are there; my favorite is how to tape one's hands for the RKC weekend. Golden.

Fourth, Rif has introduced many of us to new techniques, including club bells and hot bikram yoga. It's been remarkable watching his vids using these tools - and seeing his form and progress.

Fifth, if he didn't pioneer it, his use of videos to show how he walks the walk is illustrative, inspiring, and what makes his workout record such a gift. Go *watch* Rif do it.

Sixth, Rif's blog is a generous space: his blog role goes on forever with the names of many RKCs - who were in no small part inspired to create their own blogs because of Rif's example. Talking with RKCII Rolando Garcia at the CK-FMS, he asked if i'd noticed how RKC's blogs weren't just do one thing, but included a range of practices - a little joint mobility; a little KB'ing; a little powerlifting. I turn to Rif's rich reflections on his own workouts and see the Model. And what day of the week is Swing Day? When are double bikrams?

Seventh, Tracy. Rif's love of and support for his life partner Tracy is just so cool to see. That's them in the picture in this post. He talks about Tracy with such obvious joy, pride and butt kicked impressed-ness, that we can't help but just applaud - but also what a great model of encouragement and support. Tracy's own blog has mirrored the Rif model of sharing her video'd progress and thoughts. It's a powerful combo, these two. The community owes them a huge debt of thanks.

Eight, Rif Replies. Look at ALL the comments on Rif's blog - half of them are usually him responding to others' comments. Your thoughts are never just a post on Rif's blog: you comment, he'll reply back. Like you're at his place and he's gonna come around to welcome you. Again, this interaction approach has been inspiring and informed our own practice: this is just the way ya do it, the Rif way.

Rif, thank you so much for blazing the trail and setting such an awesome template of generous, courteous, helpful engagement. Respect, dude. Live long and prosper.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Fitting Vibram FiveFingers - And Injinji Socks - review

How do you fit Vibram FiveFingers (VFF) shoes? or How do Vibram FiveFingers fit, really? does that fit change with socks? would you want socks?

In the UK and even many places in the US, pretty much the only way to get Vibram FiveFingers shoes is by mail order, so getting the right fit in these uniquely fitting shoes is a kinda big consideration especially with shipping costs, and perhaps even more so if you're going international (more on the international scene at the end of post).

Having just gone through checking out the Fit of each of the four current FiveFingers models, the Classic, the Sprint, the KSO and the Flow, with and without socks, let me share the experience, and, i hope, help resolve a potential FiveFingers fit dilemma.

This is a kinda long piece. So, if you want to scroll ahead, this review gives
  • An Overview of Fitting
  • Why you want these VFF's
  • Fit, each model, one by one
    • Classic
    • Sprint
    • Flow
    • KSO
  • Adding Socks (Injinji to the Rescue)
    • injinijis as just cool socks
  • Getting Used to Five Fingers
    • caveats for colder weather
  • Notes on Ordering
  • The (Sad) International Situation (to date)
  • Summary on Fit
the New Bikila - how fit these, eh?
(update: and if you want to ask "ya, are you still wearing these?" i've posted an update about wearing VFF's five months on, too. The effect is pretty surprising and profound - in a good way. Also, how to wear 'em in sub freezing temps, and why they rule at airport security - and most recently (may 09): how VFF's afford free foot massage.)

Also, UPDATE at bottom on TREK and Performa Fitting Experiences)

(update on the new bikila, too, july '10)

(just added: FITTING THE SMARTWOOL CLASSIC - oct 9 '10)

Overview on Fitting
If you don't feel like going through the review, here are two fast take aways:
  • one: follow Vibrams fitting guidance for each model (check sizing link, bottom of page) - you may not believe it if you've mail ordered only one size, and one feels a bit snug or a bit big, but it will work out to be the case - more on why below.
  • A biggie to note is that the Flow and the KSO are recommended to be a size smaller than the classic and the sprint. Frex, if you take a 44 in the classic, you'd order a 43 in the KSO.
  • two: you don't need to get a bigger size for injinji toe socks to fit (and as the weather gets cooler, you may be pleased to fit in a pair of socks).
General Fit Guidance
It's important to note that the Classic and Sprint fit are different from the Flow and KSO. If you're size X in the Classic and Sprint, you're a size X-1.
Also Vibram says measure your largest foot from the heel to the longest digit (might be your big toe; might be your index toe) to get your size. Take that measurement in CM's or inches and 1/8ths of an inch to the fitting chart, and match gender/measure to the appropriate size chart.
The longest digit really is the biggie here, and Vibram is clear that if a toe is more than a certain fraction of an inch bigger than your big toe, getting a great fit may be a challenge. I'd add that that challenge *really* depends on the model.

Fitting. Another tip Vibram recommends for putting these shoes on: put 'em on the floor and slot your toes in, rather than trying to wrestle the shoe on toe by toe, or putting the heel in first and then trying to slot in toes. This, too, works. I also find after getting the toes in, moving the toe back and forth to make sure it's "in" can be a good check.

According to everyone i've spoken with who has worn these shoes for months to over a year, the guidance is: fit as snuggly as possible, but always fit with a bias to the toes. If any toe is feeling squished, go to the next size. When in doubt, go for optimal toe fit first and foremost.

Why do you want these?
Most of the reviews i've seen on the web review VFFs as running and hiking footwear rather than as walking around at work kinda footwear. Me, i'm looking at these as all around wear foot-ware, where i can do whatever whenever in the quest to "free your feet", - i like to run home/to work, for instance, or go work out, or be at work. Before i was enlightened about the evils of structured running type shoes, i'd wear high tech joggers to fit most of these activities - except deadlifting -where flat or no footware specifically was the guidance. So this review on fit is really looking at these shoes as largely generic options for everyday (heh there are black ones for the office if black is required)

Breaking (f)it Down, One Shoe at a Time
So, you've decided you too would like to check out these shoes for your lifestyle's activities. This next section looks at the features of each model and how they.

While going through the models, it's clear that each shoe is an evolution on Vibram's part around fit/shoe sculpting. There may be reasons that you choose one model over another, but there seems to be general consensus on which model has the best fit. So when getting these shoes, be ready for some compromise in fit/expectations. These compromises are not bad things or shoe stoppers, but each model really does have pluses and minuses around fit vs attributes that might make you decide on one model over the other - if indeed you want to make a choice.

The Classic is Vibram's original model, and it's very slipper-esque. It's what Vibram says is their "minimalist" approach. Minimalist in this case pretty much refers to what's used to hold the shoe to the foot. In this case it's (1) the fit of the toes, (2) the closeness of the shoe around the rest of the foot - very dance slipper or rock slipper like (except for the toes), and (3) an adjustable elastic to "secure" the shoe if/as necessary.

Unlike the three other models, the back of the heel on the Classic is not adjustable: it's a fixed rubber-esque material that goes around each side of the heel pocket like a big oval. While the slipper stays on based on fit, it can be further secured by the eleastic that runs around the top of the shoe that can be further tightened by a pull tab on the back of the shoe. Several people i've spoken with have said they've just cut this elastic because even at its loosest setting it's irritating with what still feels like there's some tension in the elastic even when it's at its most relaxed setting. I agree: i'd like to see a completely neutral setting on this elastic, which may be saying something as these shoes are so *not* tight on me.

Classic Fit: If you have a foot size based on your big toe, you're likely to get a really good fit with these shoes. That means that they're experienced as nicely snug, where the arch area fits close up to the arch of your foot. With this model, you'll enjoy the ease with which you can pull this slipper on and whip it off. I know folks who swear by the Classic, and love its simplicity and elegance - though i'm not sure if they've tried the other models.

Heel Fit: If you have a foot measured by a longer toe, you may feel like while the slipper fits your toes, and while the slipper stays on your foot, it may *seem* a bit long in the heel or like there's more play around the arch than a smaller size. This, according to folks at who fit tons of people, is really normal. The fixed rubber grip on the back of the heel just doesn't snug into the foot as well in the Long Toe case (you'd have to have a really long calcaneus to snug the heel on).

I've now spoken with a number of Long Toe people who still like the Classic, but acknowledge that there is a bit of space in the heel - that they can squeeze that space between thumb and index finger while on their foot. Saying that, they still prefer this slight looseness to a toe being curled or on the verge of being curled up. I'd like to stress that even in running in the shoe, it does not come off in the Long Toe/more heel room case.

Reality Check on Fit: i tried on a size down from my big toe measure, and Vibram's fit guide is right: while the fit of the heel was closer in the size smaller, and i really wished it had fit, that pull on the Long Toe was a killer. And that classic heel even with that smaller size still leaves room where i could squish the back of the heel with thumb and index finger. So, i'm persuaded: go as snug as you can without any bending of toes. In this case, you just might decide you don't want this model because it feels too loose for your liking. On the other hand, this is very nice for deadlifting: you can't get flatter while still wearing shoes. And since they are not going to come off, gosh, these could be just right bang around in shoes. Now, as said, i'm ok with the loose feeling (i stress feeling) fit, but boy that string is irritating - i'm willing to believe that may just be me and a few other folks with whom i've spoken, and not a general irritant, but even here, on the high side, if the string bugs you, it can be cut.

The Sprint. The Sprint is not just the classic with a strap. While it has a strap over the top of the foot, it (a) gets rid of the string from the Classic and (b) adds dual straps on the back of the heel replacing the fixed rubber of the classic.

Fit. The strap means that the arch can fit closer to your own arch than a Classic for folks with the looser heel fit. Consequently, the shoe fits a wee bit differently than the Classic. For instance, for my own feet, whereas the smaller size Classic immediately killed my longer toe, i *almost* got away with the smaller (big toe) size of the Sprint and *maybe* it would have been ok, BUT the larger (actual as measured) shoe size is really dandy/ok because unlike the classic, the heel and arch can be better fit without compromising the toes.

So who likes this shoe? Runners who like the security of a strap; folks who like the easy fit of the classic but feel like a strap gives better fit/control, etc. All that's great. Without that string, and with the soft customizable heel, i find them generally more comfortable than the Classic, but really appreciate why folks want that Classic simplicity.

The Flow. If you imagine a Sprint converted into a full foot neoprene upper, you have the Flow. The strap/heel system is pretty much identical, though the rubber sole is technically a different material - it's not so as you'd notice putting the others beside this one.

The shoe is targeted to be either a cold weather runner or a stream crossing, go swimming hiker. I'm imagining it in the cold winter rains trundling to work.

Fit. The Flow is one of the two Five Fingers that is the One Size Smaller than Classic/Sprint rule. The camo rubber sole is pretty cool, though unless you put your foot up on your knee at work, who there is gonna notice, eh? Also, the fit feels like there's way less compromise going on with the Flow than with either the Classic or the Sprint. I wear the size in these i actually wear in a boot; it handles both the shape of the foot and the long toe thing without feeling like i've had to size up for that anatomical issue.

That said, this is a neoprene shoe: it's going to be snug. In fact my initial response was, "oh heck, i've followed the size guidelines and this is too small; i must get the size up. Phooey." But when i tried on the size up, there was WAY too much length in the toes, AND it STILL felt just as snug to get on. So again, you can likely feel pretty good about ordering the Vibram sizing guidelines.

In wearing these in a cold hotel room, i didn't find that the neoprene shoe felt any warmer than the other models: heat is generated by moving in these. If you're sitting at a desk, other toe solutions may be needed - and we'll come around to that shortly.

The KSO (Keep Stuff Out). The KSO is the most recent addition to the Five Fingers line. As for design, imagine the sprint, with a full foot cover added to that area from where the toe area ends, with mesh going up to the ankle, giving the same amount of cover as the Flow, but with this mesh on the forefoot, except cleverly where the strap closes which is solid material, and then mesh around the heels.

Now imagine as well a more minimalist strapping system around the heel and forefoot. Rather than three straps (one on each side of the heel and one across the forefoot), these one strap looped around the back of the shoe, linked at the arch and moving over the forefoot.

The KSO just works. Some folks may still prefer the open or uncovered forefoot of the Classic/Sprint, especially in the summer where bare skin against the wind is just a happy thing. But for those even in these conditions wanting to keep stuff out of the foot bed from trail running or whatever, the KSO mesh is a Very Good Idea. If you are a runner, there's a terrific 2 part review of the KSO, in comparison with sprint and why the KSO seems better over at Keith-in-Training.

The Fit. Now whether you like the mesh or not, there's no arguing with the Fit of the KSO relative to each of the other models. In both online reviews and in talking with long time FF patrons, there's general agreement that the KSO is the most perfect fit of the Five Fingers models, and is perhaps the best overall design. I'd have to agree: in my experience, the shoe that fit the best, fit best against the Vibram size guidelines, is the KSO. Like the flow, I also don't feel like i'm compromising on the fit of this shoe: that i had to get a size bigger for the Longer Toe issue. These felt great to put on, and after all the others, just felt without any of the questions the other ones elicited that these just fit. Like the Three Bears: not too big, too small, too snug; very much, just right. I don't know to what to attribute this better vibe to, since even without the strap done up at all, this model just happily hugs my foot and the toes feel just the right comfort between length and snugness.

Overall Goodness. The cool thing about this shoe is that it really seems like Vibram as a company is seriously working to improve the fit and function of these shoes with each iteration. What does this steady improvement bode for its next efforts - and there are new designs in the pipeline. Rumour has it, there's a home and training version on the way.

In the meantime, if you're looking for one all-rounder five fingers, the KSO takes that place.

Adding Socks: Injinji to the rescue
I've read about people running long distances in FF and getting blisters so really wanting some kind of sock/liner for their runners. For me, it's as the weather dips below freezing, and i can't wear sandals anymore, these shoes are just too thin or bare for the outdoors - heck, even indoors the other day, i felt my toes getting cold.

Vibram itself points to the San Diego sock maker Injinji. Injinji makes high tech toe socks. After going through the multiple fittings of all the above models of FiveFingers, the thought of having to do it all again to get shoes that fit with socks made me want to throw forks. But i had hope from online forums: only Keith of the above KSO review deliberately got a bigger size shoe to wear with his socks.

In my experience, even with the snug Flows, one does not need to get a bigger size Five Fingers to wear the toe socks. As far as i can tell, here's why, at least for me (your mileage may differ). In my case, i already have considerable give in both the Classic and the Sprint, so no problem with socks for these.

Also, The socks make the toe a wee bit thicker, rather than particularly longer. If you try on your five fingers, you'll likely find that your toes don't necessarily super squeeze right up to the tip of the toe and pull. At that point your toe would likely be about to be bent by the shoe. So, as for thickness - there's a LOT of give in the stretchy material of the Five Fingers - even with the neoprene. So fatter, no problem. With the KSO/FLow where the fit seems to be better, likewise, there still seems to be sufficient length and definitely enough lateral stretch to feel pretty comfy. Again, you *may* want to check this especially if you're running but i'm pretty happy with the length/thickness issue.

The ability to get these socks has meant that i can now wear these shoes standing still and not get cold feet - literally. They're available in the US at and If you're outside the US, good luck. It's international order time again, it seems except for australia. Hi injinji australia!

Update Nov 24, 2008: Injinji in the EU. Injinji has said they are in the process of opening their European Distribution Central warehouse in Spain. They recommend contacting in the interim about getting socks till they're fully up and running.

Injinji Socks on their own: cool toes.

Just a note on the injinji - these are cool technical socks. Injinji make less "technical" socks, but the Performance socks are thin, cool max, durable blends that come in black and white and three lengths: micro, mini-crew and crew. I have only been wearing these in the Five Fingers so far so can't comment on how they feel in "normal" shoes, but they felt great simply to walk or lie around in at home. One of the biggies is that it's actually easier with these socks on to watch how the foot moves in a gait. Anyway, i look foward to trying their Outdoor and Comfort models.

Getting Used to Five Fingers
if you've been walking barefoot or in Dopies or in footware with thin soles like Tai Chis or walk around a lot in bare feet, putting on Vibrams may feel initially more claustrophobic than wearing sandals or shoes, but they'll be no challenge to walk in. If you're coming out of highly structured shoes or stiff soled shoes or very cushy trainers, Vibram's advice again is on point: give yourself a chance for your feet to adapt to all the new muscle use. Your feet may get tired/sore initially. This is not the shoe's fault. Blame 18th century european footwear traditions that just haven't let go, and give these more of a chance.

Cold Toes Caveat. My only caveat about Five Fingers is that they are shoes designed to support being in movement, and that movement keeps blood flowing to the toes that keeps em warm. Otherwise, getting into these isolating toe pockets - even with socks - your toes can get cold. This may again be a don't blame the shoes. Get up and do some little plyo jumps to warm up your toes if you want to wear these as snug fitting foot gloves.

Cold Soles Caveat. Walking home on sidewalks where the night air was close to 0C, my feet were feeling the cold - and this is with socks in the shoes. Not sure that the Flows would address the bottom-of-the-feet chill - haven't tested that yet, though they have a slightly thicker sole. Indeed, the VFF site says of the Flow " A 1.2mm Neoprene lining and 2mm EVA footbed provide the thermal insulation and protection." - will update when i've tested this shoe in colder climes.

Just a note, then, that if you're thinking of these as walking shoes in the cold, rather than running and generating heat, that may need a rethink. That said, standing on the cold grass in KSOs was more comfortable at this temperature than the pavement.

In similarly frigid conditions early this AM, i wore toe socks with Dopie sandals - which have slightly thicker soles than the Five Fingers - and that made a definite difference between cold soles and just fine. After wearing the vibrams, though, the Dopies feel less natural of a footstrike - which is more of a surprise to me as wearing these for the past month+ solid i'm sure got my feet ready to go Five Fingers without any issue. Dang. where are the winter soled five fingers??

Notes on Ordering: check return/exchange policy
If you need to get these shoes not from a local shop where folks are happy to spend time with you to get these fit, like Boston's Core de Vie, check especially the shipping costs and return policy of the online store. For instance, has a return policy that perplexes me:

Shipping on most orders is free, however we do not cover shipping from you to us. There is a re-ship charge on all exchanges. Returns will be charged a restocking fee of $8.
KayakShed, a major stockist of Five Fingrs, has free delivery on the initial order. Cool! They are also super helpful to talk with about fit/style and so on (so do talk with them if you have any questions). But on returns, you pay the postage to return the goods. Ok, fair enough, but you will also be charged to ship out a replacement pair on an exchange. In other words it is to your advantage to make a completely distinct order at some other point which means free delivery, rather than arranging an exchange. You'll also get dinged another 8 bucks to have those returns put back on the shelf (See comment from John at Kayakshed below: they're working on this).

TravelCountry, another stockist, has a return policy where you simply pay to get the shoes back - there's no posted restocking fee. Whether that means there is one, and they haven't posted it, i don't know. They say, in part.
Since we ship most orders FREE** UPS ground returns are the purchaser's responsibility. covers all ground freight back to you on exchanges. If we happen to ship you a defective or incorrect item, we will reimburse you for your reasonable shipping costs back to us.
Vibram itself will ship the shoes (and socks), but they charge for shipping, restocking the whole bit. If only shipped FiveFingers. Amazingly, they cover the cost of both shipping AND returns (by of course charging a bit more on the shoes in the first place :)).

As for in store, places like Core de Vie in Cambridge, MA has a great selection, and a passion for the product. They even have a vibram Five Fingers size thingy (called a “Franick” according to Vibram CEO Tony Post) that you step on to confirm your size - great idea, and yes it confirms that carefully measuring your foot as specified on the Vibram site does work. As for returning product, it's in-store credit only. Over at the small chain City Sports, they have full return for their product, and an Education discount, but so far there's less choice in colors/models (no women's KSO in stores, but available on web sites) and no “Franick” in store. The Vibram Five Fingers Site has lists of stores that DO stock their shoes, too. That's how i found some local stockists.

For International Orders. If you want to get the Flow or KSO (or women's sizes above 40 in any model), folks like do have international orders. Their shipping is reasonable, too. That said, the usual caveats apply about how clothing/footware may be dutied crossing the border, and whether or not you get dinged with VAT may be hit or miss. It would be great to hear from anyone with international ordering experience.

The Sad International Situation

Here's one specific fit problem - and this for women. In the EU/UK at least, the biggest size you'll get in women's is a 40. If you take a 41 or 42, you'll have to order from the US. Why is a mystery: all the shoes apparently go from China and then to Italy for the EU, and from China to the US. Same place produces all shoes, so why not throw in a few more women's sizes? Or a few more models?

Indeed, if you're outside North America, you can only get the Classic or the Sprint at outrageously inflated prices (even with VAT factored in, there's what seems to be a considerable mark up from US prices. Can't quite figure this, considering they all come from the same source, and the journey to the EU is actually shorter than on to the US). In speaking with one rep at the Vibram FiveFingers office, it seems that who deal with EU distribution are focusing on VFFs not just as a technical shoe, but a style shoe, too. The Flow and KSO, it seems, do not yet fit into that concept. How could camo soles not be a hit in Milan?

If you think either the lack of models or sizes is a shame, or would like to understand the pricing, why not email the FiveFingers distributor in the EU - and in the US too, and let them know there *IS* a demand for these shoes. Go UK! Go EU!

Update Nov 3 '08: Tony Post, President and CEO emailed to say that the EU office is distinct from the US office, "All design and product development has been done collaboratively, but North America has largely driven the market" Both the EU and US offices, however, are working hard to improve distribution. Excellent! - There is hope, then, that 2009 will see better selection on models and sizes. And that the CEO emailed directly is pretty durn cool, don't you think? That there are human beings making these things AND connected with their customers is just another reason to dig the company. Will of course update the page once the EU situation clears up.

nov 15:

This just in from reader Jason: UK online shoe store is having a 3 for 2 sale INCLUDING KSO's at That's one way to get US'ish pricing - but seem to be only men's sizing. dang dang dang

march 2010 - have been impressed with Pure Footwear's range of VFF's and pricing in the UK (no recompense for saying this - they were also the only ones to have the size 42's on vivo barefoot winter shoes for women)

Overall: Free Your Feet; trust your feet (and the FiveFingers fit guide).
The big motivation for Vibram Five Fingers, at least for me, has been to get towards barefootedness. I've written about the increasing arguments that say trust your feet: they have more engineering going into them than your shoes, eh? And Five Fingers make the claim that by their thin soles, and finger fit, they're Respecting the Foot, while respecting the reality of nasty stuff on the ground.

Now i'm *not* super entirely sure that having toes in individual pockets, rather than say a loose shoe like a moccasin or a vivo barefoot (assuming that vivo gets its sizing act together. See vivo note here towards end of foot freeing piece in the purple text - talk about contrast in responsiveness between the vivo office and vibram. but that's another story) is superior, or if so in what ways, but it's an interesting question to explore. One of the big immediate differences in the Mitt vs Glove analogy is that the VFF's glove fit really does mean the shoe conforms to all parts of the foot and does let the toes articulate freely. How this contributes to an outdoor foot experience will be a cool study. Based on all the great reports from VFF long time runners and wearers, i'm keen to learn. Apparently there is a study going on looking into Five Fingers but in terms of a specific research question i don't know what that is. But these ARE interesting shoes and they are a joy to walk, run, sprint in - more so than any non-toed shoe i have.

The take aways as i've said at least in terms of fit is that, from my very unscientific testing of models smaller and larger than those specified by the foot guide, and those right on the foot guide,
  • the foot guide has been right, and be sure to measure for biggest foot/longest toe
  • if you are a Longer Toe than Big Toe fitter, the KSO and Flow seem to fit better than the Classic and the Sprint. This difference doesn't mean the Classic/Sprint are not for you; just that the fit will not be as snug/glovelike potentially as the other models.
  • while your mileage may vary, generally, you can wear socks comfortably in the same same FiveFinger shoe that you wear barefoot.
Assuming you trust the foot guide on fit, the only real remaining question for you may be which model sounds like the right one for you based on where you plan to use them.

Good luck on your mission, and i hope this guide helps you with that Ordering Something I Can't Try On conundrum.
If you have questions, or other observations, please post.
If you think this review has helped, please feel free to leave a comment.

And by the way, the confirmed, official spelling of the brand is FiveFingers (TM) - all one word, and with caps as shown. VFF and FF also recognized abbreviations in the community.

UPDATE March 8, 2010: New post reflecting on the experience five months on of daily VFF wear, and the surprise stride effect.

Update June 17, 2009: Guest Article on about how Z-Health can optimize the VFF benefit to help move/feel even better.

Update March 8, 2010:

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