The back, the tits and the showy bits

OK, time for part 3 of my current series on working out without the need for a gym. For all my general hints and tips, check out my last post- today I’m going to be listing techniques and exercises for working the muscle groups of the upper body, starting with…

PECTORALS (PECS) & TRICEPS
Where: The chest- or ‘boobs’ as one guy I work out with sometimes insists on referring to them. The chest is the muscle group most associated with posturing and aesthetic effect, and as such is one of the most worked by gym goers. Whilst most people tend to have a rather underdeveloped chest, it is a very useful group once they are built as they are able to take the work off other parts of the arm and shoulder. Triceps are found on the back of the upper arm, and are used purely to straighten the arm (pivoting mostly around the elbow).
Exercise: The chest is used as a way of levering the arms around the shoulder joint, pulling them from out to in and straightening them. Thus, most chest exercises are based around the straightening of the arm, and are often adapted forms of exercises designed to work the triceps. One of the best, if done properly, are press-ups (or push-ups).
Press-ups are much-maligned as an exercise, usually because they are done improperly. However, because they can vary so much in difficulty depending on your technique, they can get harder and harder as you get stronger and stronger so that you keep on progressing. Everyone knows the basic motion of press-ups; you lie face down on the ground, arms by your sides, and lift yourself upwards by extending your arms whilst keeping your body straight (this is especially important). This then gets repeated several times, your chest ideally going down to a height of about the width of a fist off the ground (if it’s really too hard for you to begin with then you can go down less far, but you should really try not to).  However, the variability comes from your arm position. The easiest position to do, and what you should start with if you find press-ups difficult, is with your hands as wide by your sides as is comfortable- this is quite an easy, short range of motion that uses all your muscles, so is nice and easy. Once you feel comfortable with those (if you can do 20 of them in a single set without a break, that’s usually a good indicator that it’s time to move on), start trying them with your hands getting steadily further inwards, until they are directly below your shoulders. To work your chest from this position, move your hands down a little so that they are around your rib area, and do press-ups with your arms bending outwards- after a set you should feel your pectorals pulling at your sternum (breastbone). To work the triceps more, bend and extend your arms so they stay parallel to the direction of your body (warning- this is very difficult the first time you try it). If this ever gets too easy (which is kinda unlikely), then try putting your hands in a triangle directly below your chest, or even trying them one-handed (which is easier with your legs spread wide for stability). If they ever get too easy for working your chest, then try  moving your hands lower or loading a backpack up with weight. There are some even more athletic alternatives, but I could talk about this forever. 45 second rests over 3 sets of whatever you can do should be all that’s needed.

BICEPS & BACK
Where: Biceps are at the front of the upper arms, the opposite side of the bones to the triceps. They are used for bending the arm about the elbow, and for flexing in front of mirrors and the easily-impressed. The part of the back I am interested is the upper part, between the shoulders and covering the trapezius (below the neck), latissimus dorsi (across the back below the shoulder blades, and the underarms, pulling the arm in to rotate around the shoulder) and a myriad of others that I can’t name or identify.
Exercise: I stick by my principle and say that you won’t need any gym equipment for this- however, you will need a backpack and a tree. Said tree does not have to be huge, but has to have a limb going horizontally with some space beneath it that you can reach, hang from and get off from without too much difficulty (this is a really good excuse for finding any good climbing trees around where you live), because here we’re going to be talking about pull-ups. (It doesn’t have to be a tree, but they’re probably the most accessible, free solution) For all of this, 3 sets of whatever you can manage (but keep it regular), separated by minute rests, will do.
The majority of the population probably lack the strength to complete a single pull-up, and to be honest I don’t blame you- until 2 years ago I couldn’t either. So your backpack will once again come in useful- load it up with weight and do some bicep curls with it to start off with. Holding the bag in both hands (or do one hand each if that’s too easy and your bag won’t take more), let your arms hang by your sides and, ensuring that you do not lean back, twist your body or move your elbows (they should be around the hip area), raise the bag up, rotating around the elbow, up to your chest (or until your elbows form a 90 degree angle if you can’t do that too easily). Do 2 sets to destruction (as man as you can), separated by a minute’s rest. After a few weeks (or whatever) of that, you should feel some improvement in your arm strength, so it’s time to move on to pull-ups. To start with, stick to chin-ups, as these will use your (by now quite strong) biceps mainly and work a few other muscles more gently to prepare them for some heavier exercises. Hang from your tree limb with your arms straight and hands in a ‘palms towards you’ grip, and pull yourself up so that your chin clears the limb. Then, lower yourself down a little, at least until your forehead is below the limb, and then raise once more. Some people like to leave their legs straight, others tuck them behind them crossed together, but don’t whatever you do use them to swing yourself up. As you get more proficient, extend the length of your pulls- start by going down so that your elbows form a 90 degree angle, and eventually progress to ‘full arm’ (extending your arms back to straight before pulling up). As a general rule with pull-ups of all sorts, if you can do 12 with relative ease in one way then it’s time to vamp up the difficulty. If you can do full-arm chin-ups, then start mixing them up with narrow pronated pull-ups; these are exactly the same as chin-ups except with your hands in a pronated grip (palms facing away from you). This works your biceps less and your back, especially your trapezius, more. Another thing- if you’re finding that the last inch or so of the pull-up is really tough, then it probably means that your lats are weak (which is not unusual). To work those specifically, try to touch your chest to the tree limb when doing your exercise- you can also try leaning backwards, endeavouring to keep your back straight, in a dead hang position (just hanging with straight arms).
If you are able to do around 8 of both narrow pronated and chin-ups (full-arm) without a break, then firstly well-done; if you’re doing your technique right and are not a dwarf stick insect then you should have built an impressive set of biceps by now. However, to work your upper back more (an underappreciated, useful and rather impressive muscle group), then it’s time to move on to wider pull-ups. These will require a slightly thicker tree limb that is able to support a wider grip without wobbling. If you can find one, then hang with your arms slightly wider than shoulder’s width apart and pull up with the same motion. If your back is weak (which it probably will be- everyone’s is) then these should be harder, but persevere and you should see definite improvements. Sternum pull-ups are slightly harder variations of these in which you lean back a little as you lift yourself and try to bring the top of your sternum (leaning back), close to the tree limb- if you really want to challenge yourself, on the way down try to push yourself out away from the limb a little and feel the burn as you descend slowly and controlledly!
Finally, for more work on the back itself (especially the V-shape of the shoulder blades), try wide-grip pull-ups which (you guessed it) are the same but with a wider grip. And, if you really want to give your biceps a killing, try the odd one-arm pull-up to mix things up a bit- if you can do one of those with a set of horizontal shoulders, every gym-goer on the planet will salute you.

OK… ah. 1500 words. Sorry about that- there was a lot to get through. Ah well, no matter, I’ll just have to do another one! Monday’s post will feature a bit on forearm work, and a full-body exercise that even a seasoned gym-goer probably won’t have heard of, as well as a little more general advice. See you then.

Muscle time

OK, time for part two of my ‘gym-less workouts’ guide, this time dealing with the important stuff- muscular strength. Strength is a fairly blanket term, covering every one of the (numerous) muscle groups, different motions and the various aspects of size, explosive power, maximum strength and endurance. The general rule that applies to pretty much any exercise is that less reps on a higher load (so more weight, more difficult technique, doing the motion in a slower, more controlled fashion etc.) will build more power and strength, whereas more reps on a lower load will build lean, wiry muscle built for speed and endurance. It’s also important, as with fitness exercises, to do a quick warm-up to ensure your muscles are ready for work- this generally takes the form of a few very easy exercises just to get them moving and the blood flowing. A quick note on sets and reps too- it is standard practice among gym goers to do exercises in ‘sets’ (normally three of them, but any number from 1-5 is fine), each of them containing a fixed number of repetitions, or ‘reps’ of that exercise. Each set is separated by a break of anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes. This way of working allows you to do more stuff than you could in a single sitting, but the resting and then reworking of your muscles will also pay dividends in terms of effectiveness. I have tried to offer some advice as to the amount you should be doing, but adjust to whatever feels right for you. Try to set yourself small, achievable targets to work towards, as these can be the difference between somebody who turns into a muscle-bound hunk to just a bloke who works out and always looks the same way.

One final thing- it’s not good to go and blow yourself out with a high-intensity session every day. These exercises are probably best done in one big ‘gym session’, and if you cycle through the various exercises, giving that muscle group, rather than your whole body, a rest, then this circuit training will be a great fitness workout too. But they can work just as well done whenever is most convenient, and trying to do a big session every single day will just tire you out to the point at which your muscles can’t recover (and thus can’t build effectively) and you won’t be able to keep up a good intensity. A gym goer will rarely do more than three sessions a week, with rest days spread between them , to ensure maximum effectiveness. Sessions should also be well planned in advance (it makes sense for anyone who wants to get serious about this to plan a weekly routine and just change the number or reps & sets as you improve)- good planning separates those who are always improving and the blokes who go to the gym three times a week for years and never look any different.

OK, now to start on the actual exercises (for which a rucksack will be necessary for a number of the exercises), working from the bottom up:

LEGS
Where
: Quadriceps (quads) are located at the front of the thigh, hamstrings (or ‘leg biceps’) at the back and calves down the back of the foreleg, behind the shin bone
Exercise: Run. Or cycle, if that’s more your thing, but to my mind you can’t really do better than running- it’ll do everything. Sprint sets, running as fast as possible over short, 20 metre distances, will work for strength (try sprinting out and then back-pedalling for a good, mixed workout)- sets of 10 sprints, separated by a minute rest, should do nicely, increasing the number of sets you do as you get fitter and stronger. A good run at moderate intensity should will work wonders for both muscle mass and endurance- it should start to hurt from about 10-20 minutes onwards, in both heart and legs, but try to push on through the pain and it’ll be worth it. However, if you feel a stitch coming on then slow to a walk and take a rest for it to subside, otherwise you’ll be in for a very uncomfortable time and you won’t work as effectively. If you can manage regular half-hour runs, at whatever speed you can, that will do nicely
If you really want to work on your leg strength but for some reason don’t want to do sprints (wanting to mix it up a bit is a good reason- laziness is not!), then load up a backpack with as much weight as it can take, and stand with feet shoulders-width apart. To work the quads, squat down as deep as you can, trying as much as you can to keep your feet flat to the floor, and then stand up- if you really want to feel the burn then do so as slowly as you can. Three sets to destruction (as many as you can do), with a 90 second rest between each should work. For calves, just go up onto tiptoes and back down again repeatedly. These should be done as quickly as possible for as long as possible- but make sure your calves are well-stretched beforehand, as they are particularly prone to cramps and pulling. If this is too easy (which it probably will be), try doing it on only one leg at a time, and do lots of fast reps

ABDOMINALS (ABS)
Where:
 As the name suggests, in the abdominal area- around the belly. These muscles are what form a six pack, and are often hidden by a belly- so if you want to show them off, you’re going to need to lose the flab (which I have yet to do!)
Exercise: There are a huge variety of abdominal exercises you can do- sit-ups, medicine ball drops, leg raises etc.- but one of the most reliable is crunchesLie with your back flat on the floor, hips and knees forming right-angles (so your shin should be parallel with your back). Grab your ears with your hands (you can let go if you’re used to the motion, but it helps to prevent your arms swinging you up), and sit up very slightly, pulling your shoulder blades just off the floor and touching your elbows to your knees. Then drop back down and repeat. Try to keep your knees in position, and do not pull yourself up with your arms. All abdominal exercises are done in an isotonic fashion (low load, fast motion, high reps), and this is no exception- crunches should be done as fast as you can, each one ideally taking around a second (but if you can’t quite keep up then don’t worry- it’ll come). After 20-30 reps, your belly should start to hurt- keep on pushing until you physically cannot do any more. Then take a 90 second break and do another set to destruction, for as many sets as you can do comfortably.
Another muscle group typically grouped with the abs are the obliques, which are similar muscles down each side of your body. A lot of exercises (and gym goers) tend to ignore them, but they are important nonetheless. A small adaptation to crunches can work the obliques- when lifting yourself off the floor, twist your body so that your right elbow touches your left knee. Then, on the next rep, touch your left elbow to your right knee and so on, continuing to alternate. The same ‘burning’ sensation should be felt down your sides as well as in the belly, which tells you you’re doing a good job.

OK, all that rambling at the start took up quite a lot of room, so I’m going to have to continue this in my next post. Until then- see what you can do on the aerobic and flexibility fronts, and try not to burn yourself out too quickly (advice I have been breaking recently =] ).

Who needs a gym?

This is a post I’ve been trying not to resort to in a while- not because I think the content’s going to be bad or anything, just that it’s a bit of a leap from my usual stuff and because it’s actually going to be a bit too easy. However, given the fact that a) the Euros, Wimbledon and the Olympics are all on over the next month or so, b) my last few posts have been of a sporting persuasion, c) I vaguely know what I’m talking about here and d) I keep forgetting my other ideas, I thought I’d bite the bullet and go for it. So here it is, my first ever advice column for this blog: how to get fit and strong without the use of any gym equipment.

Fitness can be broadly (and fairly inadequately) split into three separate fields: aerobic & cardiovascular, muscular and flexibility. I’ll deal with all three of these separately, and am almost certainly going to have to add another post to fit all of the ‘muscular’ area into, but I’ll start with flexibility.

Some would argue that flexibility is not really part of fitness, and it’s true that, on the surface, it doesn’t appear to fit into our typical classification of the subject. However, it is just as much a matter of our physical ability to perform as any other, and thus probably has the right to be included as part of this list. The main reason I have misgivings about talking about it is simply personal knowledge- I don’t really know any exercises designed to improve flexibility.

However, that doesn’t mean I can’t offer advice on the matter. The first, and simplest, way to improve general flexibility and range of motion is just to get active. Every movement of the joints, be they legs, arms, back or wherever, makes them that tiny bit freer to move over that range and thus a little bit more supple- running, cycling, whatever. It is partly for this reason too that it is important to warm up and stretch prior to exercise- by extending the muscles longer than they are naturally used to, then they are prepared for that greater range of movement and are thus capable of easily moving across the more limited range that general exercise demands. Perhaps the easiest ‘flexibility exercise’ one can do is tree climbing  (which also happens to be endlessly entertaining if you can find some good trees), but stuff like yoga can be learnt without too much difficulty from the internet if you’re serious about improving your flexibility. Otherwise, I would suggest joining an appropriate club. Doesn’t have to be yoga or gymnastics or anything quite so extensive- martial arts (my personal preference, and a superb full-body endurance exercise) and rock climbing (which will build forearms and biceps the size of Mercury) are great for teaching your body a whole new way of moving, and are also a lot more fun for the casual enthusiast.

OK, now onto something I can actually talk about with some authority: aerobic and cardiovascular fitness. The goal when training cardio is simply to get the heart pumping- cardiac muscle works like any other muscle in that it can be built by straining it, breaking muscle fibres and having the body re-knit them into a bigger, stronger structure capable of doing more. Cardiovascular training should ideally be done at a rate upwards of 160 bpm (heartbeats per minute), but if you’re struggling to get into exercising then it’s best to start off with a more casual workout. Regular walking can quickly burn off excess fat and build up at least preliminary fitness (although be warned- to be most effective one should aim for a rate of around 120 steps per minute, or less if you’re struggling to keep that pace up, for at least 20 minutes. Bring an iPod too stave off boredom). The average resting heart rate of a person is somewhere around 70bpm- if yours is anything below 80 or so (measure it at home by counting the number of thumps on the left of one’s chest over the space of a minute) and you’re relatively serious about getting fit, then it’s best to step up a gear.

Just about any activity that gets the heart racing (remember- 160bpm minimum, 180 as a target) is suitable for increasing cardio fitness, be it running, cycling, swimming, rowing, football, rugby or whatever else you can think of- the only important thing is to try and keep the motion fast. Running or cycling on a machine (if you have access to one) will make it easier to keep up a pace (since air resistance is decreased), but reduces your workload, meaning less muscle is built on the legs and the effectiveness of the exercise is reduced, meaning you have to work out for longer. Rowing is an especially good exercise for both you muscles and your cardio, but access to a machine can be problematic. Oh, and a word of warning about swimming- whilst it’s a great full-body workout and can really improve your speed, it’s only going to be as effective as a good run or cycle if done at a fast pace, for quite a long time; moderate speeds won’t cut it.

You don’t have to judge one’s activity by heartbeat, as this can be understandably tricky if you’re pounding along a road, but learn to get a feel for your intensity levels. A low intensity, when you’re still able to comfortably breathe and speak (so about up to a fast walk), is a little too slow for proper aerobic work- moderate, where you can feel the breath coming hard but can still speak about normally, is fine for aerobic work over sets of about 20 minutes or longer- but keep going for as long as you can/have the time for. High-intensity work is you going flat out, where speaking becomes next to impossible. It’s probably best left until you’ve achieved a good level of fitness, but if you can manage it then just short bursts of less than 8 minutes (which is about how long you should be able to keep it up) just a few times a week can reap rewards.

A final thing about cardio, before I devote Wednesday’s post to the nitty gritty of muscular workouts- it’s at its most enjoyable when done as part of a sport. Pounding round the roads on a daily jog is almost certainly going to be a more effective workout, and if you’re really looking to seriously improve your fitness then it’s probably more the way to go- but the attraction can quickly fall away in the face of a damp Wednesday when you’re nursing a calf strain. But sport is without a doubt the best way to build up a good level of fitness and strength, make a few mates and have some fun in the process. Some are better than others- boxing is the single best activity for anyone after a cardiovascular workout, whilst something like golf doesn’t really count as exercise- but there’s something for everyone out there, if you know where to look.

Now, to plan a muscular workout for next time…

What good are Olympians?

In my last post I talked about the Euro 2012 football tournament, an event that no European could hope to ignore unless they lived in a particularly well-soundproofed cave. The event I’m going to talk about today however, has a strange power akin to osmosis meaning that it is physically impossible to avoid hearing about it from any distance less than 50 miles from any living being or, if you live in Britain, the centre of the earth. It is, of course, the London 2012 Olympics.

Olympians are, of course, the pinnacle of human physical perfection- or so we keep on being told, despite Usain Bolt’s famous obsession with chicken nuggets. In fact, it can be hard, on occasion, to believe just how amazing Olympians are meant to be. This is especially true given the amount of media attention they have attracted in recent times presenting them as ‘just normal people’, involving talks with their families and discussions of their home lives and ‘normalness’.

To an extent, some of their achievements don’t seem to be super-amazing either, when you think about it. Usain Bolt is a prime example- the man is the fastest on earth and is able to cover 100 metres in a little under 10 seconds.  This, we are told, is amazingly exceptional- despite the fact that anyone watching athletics willquickly notice a far larger number of people all able to run the same distance in less than a second more time. Then there are the dozens of other amateur or schoolboy sprinters, and fast sportsmen such as rugby wingers, who are able to do their 100 in around 11 seconds- in fact one England Sevens player (Dan Norton) has been clocked as quicker than Bolt over 20 minutes, and as a sportsman rather than athlete probably has a broader range of physical skills than him. Admittedly, most of us are probably not going to come close to any of that- but the fastest guy any given person knows is likely to be able to cover 100m in around 12 seconds, despite probably having no formal sprint training and not dedicating their lives to running very quickly in a straight line for an incredibly short period of time, which is perhaps not the most versatile of life skills.

A similar idea can be applied to quite a range of Olympic fields. Most people who keep themselves fit and lead an at least reasonably active lifestyle could cover 400m in around a minute with a little practice, so perhaps covering it in 45 seconds is not something super-amazing. I am not an especially serious rower, but I use a machine occasionally and can clock a time over 2000m of around 7:30- just a minute slower than the men’s world record on-water time for single sculls, and only 2 minutes slower than the record for a machine. A lot of blokes in the pub would consider themselves enough of a dab hand in a fight to be an at least reasonable boxer with a bit of training, and amateur boxers can’t be all that amazing can they? And have you seen the bows they use for archery? They make a laser sniper rifle look like a nerf gun- anyone could hit a target with one of those, surely?

And that’s before you even consider the practical implications of what it means to be an Olympian- I’ll use handball as an example. Up until winning the bid for the 2012 games, Britain had never had a handball team, and after the people who run these things had insisted that Team GB would enter a competitor in every event they had to produce an acceptable outfit within 4 years. This meant recruiting from people who’d already played high level sport (which mainly ended up being rugby players and basketballers) and retraining them as handballers. This required them all to spend countless weeks at special training camps. Most of them had to give up their jobs and entire lives for a worse-paid job with poorer facilities, all in pursuit of their one shot at the Olympics. As far as I know, they have yet to win a game. Surely a balanced life, sampling all there is of the human experience, makes one a better person than this relentlessly single-minded devotion?

Well… maybe, but to sell the achievements of an Olympian short is to seriously devalue them. True, in some events the differences between amateur and world-leading may not be huge, but in others the difference can be truly staggering. Consider distance running- I consider myself to be a reasonably fit guy, and go running of occasion around a 4-mile (6.4 km) course near where I live. There’s the odd small hill, but the majority of it is flat. I can cover that course in about half an hour, by the end of which I am usually sweating like a paedo in a nursery (my apologies for the rather crude expression). However, the other day a news item I saw featured a 10km event in which a few soon to be Olympians were taking part. Bear in mind that this course was over half as long again as mine… and yet they covered it in three minutes less time than I could my course. And they barely looked tired. Worse still, at my rate of running it would take me around three and a quarter hours (assuming I could somehow replicate my pace for six and a half times the distance) to complete a marathon, whereas even a mediocre Olympic marathon runner would expect to hit just two. Usain Bolt can typically keep a top speed of around 12 metres per second up for around 4 or 5 seconds, whilst a marathon runner can keep up six for hours on end. Consider events such as the javelin- they might look all light and easy to throw, but from experience trust me, they’re not. I can get one perhaps 15 metres- an Olympian six times that distance. In a long jump, most of us would struggle to exceed a metre or two, whereas the poorest Olympian jumper can hit six or seven with ease.

In these events the gulf in ability between an Olympian and a mere mortal is obvious- but do not be mistaken. That difference in terms of sheer class is present in every single Olympic discipline, and every athlete attending the games in London this year represents a world leader in their field. The Olympics is a showcase of the top 0.01% of the human race, and just how amazing we can be- and they deserve every ounce of admiration and respect that they get.

Engerlaaannd…

As you may have heard if you happen to live in the universe, the UEFA European Football Championship (or Euro 2012 to give it it’s proper title) is on at the moment and, as with every football tournament for the last half century, English football fans have been getting typically overexcited. Well, I say that, but this time appears to be the exception to the rule- whilst every major international tournament that I can remember has been prefaced by hideously optimistic predictions from a large proportion of fans as to the extent to which ‘We’re gonna trash everyone’, English fans appeared to have entered this tournament feeling rather more subdued. After the rather calamitous events of the last World Cup, the breakup of the hitherto successful Capello regime and the appointment of the relatively unknown owl-impersonator Roy Hodgson as the new Manager, everyone seems, for a change, rather dubious to accept the idea that England are actually going to be all that good, especially when coupled with a crop of players who I am told are not exactly the cream of international football.

To be honest, I don’t know any of this- that’s just what I’ve picked up from reading the papers and listening to people bang on about it. I am not a great follower of football (never have been), and don’t have too much interest in the workings of the football universe, but from a mixture of misguided patriotism and a desire not to appear hypocritical when I try to persuade people to watch the rugby, I have been keeping track of England’s progress in the tournament, watching some of the games when I can, and catching up on news and highlights when I can’t.

And I have, honestly, been pleasantly surprised.

Not so much with the quality on football on offer, not that I think it’s bad. What I saw of the Sweden match was certainly dramatic and exciting, with some great skill being showcased, and to see England winning and playing well against top-drawer sides makes a nice change from hearing of 0-0 draws with Luxembourg. No- what’s really impressed me is the attitude of the players.

There are a lot of labels and insults that we of the rugby-playing fraternity like to throw at our soccer rivals, partly in jealousy at their increased popularity and influence as a sport, and partly because we believe every single one of them to be true. Footballers are dubbed ‘wimps’ for their consistently entertaining dramatic falls from the most gentle of tackles, prima donnas for their rich lifestyles and expensive hairdos, morons for… well, Wayne Rooney’s  existence, and pretentious douchebags (or any other appropriate insult) for their disrespectful and often aggressive complaints towards the referee. All such things,  particularly the latter, are considered rather taboo subjects in rugby circles, and the ultimate insult for misconduct is to be accused of ‘acting like a footballer’ (although getting completely smashed in a pub and being carried out by your mates is considered fair game).

But… well, let me tell you of my experience of watching (admittedly only the end), of England’s first match against France. After a few minutes, Frenchman Franck Ribery got a flick in the face from Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain’s hand and, predictably, went down like he’d just been slapped by a tiger. Since he couldn’t see the incident very well (and his linesman was presumably thinking of what he’d have for dinner this evening), the referee awarded the penalty to France. And Oxlaide-Chamberlain turned round, looked affronted… and then shrugged, turned his back and jogged away, without so much as a murmur. “That’s odd”, thought I, and I carried on watching, slightly intrigued.

Then, I seem to remember after a French corner, there was a scuffle in the box. A group of players challenged for the ball, it flew out from the crush and every player fell over. Each man summarily got up, dusted himself off, and ran off after the ball. A Frenchman or two may have been a touch miffed to have been denied a free kick, but other than a quick glance over at the ref to check he wasn’t going to award the penalty there was no real complaint. The commentators barely picked up on it. “Interesting”, I thought, and my intrigue rose.

There were other things too, small things. One player got tackled rather scrappily on a run at the defence, causing him to slip over- instead of appealing for the foul, he struggled to get up and keep going, keeping the move and the continuity flowing. And this kind of stuff happened regularly- other than the Ribery incident, I didn’t see a single player diving, indulging in melodrama, or even complaining at the ref for the entire period I watched (which admittedly was only for twenty or so minutes, but even so)

Some of this can, of course, be put down to the referee- in fact I think the man deserves credit for trying to keep the game moving and maintain some continuity, despite the BBC’s claims that he was biased towards the French. It certainly made for a far more interesting display than the usual stop-start, free kick orientated style of modern football. But I think credit is due to Roy Hodgson and his men, to every player, French and English (Franck Ribery excepted), on that pitch for those 90 minutes. From what I saw of the other two games, England have kept up their record of good behaviour on the pitch, concentrating on playing well and building their reputation in the tournament on the right things, rather than their misdemeanours. In fact I would go so far as to say that this England football side have looked after themselves and their reputation better than their rugby compatriots at the world cup in New Zealand last year, if only because they haven’t found a bar that offers dwarf-tossing.

Many a more experienced and more knowledgeable football commenter than me has offered their thoughts on this year’s tournament, and I know that they have found the festival of goals, skill and upsets before them a really enjoyable one, and rightly so. But from a more neutral perspective, as a non-footballer, I would just like to say: thank you England, for restoring to your sport some dignity.

The Rich and the Failures

Modern culture loves its celebrities. For many a year, our obsessions have been largely focused upon those who spend their lives in the public eye- sportsmen and women, film and music stars, and anyone lucky and vacuous enough to persuade a TV network that they deserve a presenting contract. In recent years however, the sphere of fame has spread outwards, incorporating some more niche fields- survival experts like Bear Grylls are one group to come under the spotlight, as are a multitude of chefs who have begun to work their way into the media. However, the group I wish to talk about are businessmen. With the success of shows like Dragon’s Den and The Apprentice, as well as the charisma of such business giants as Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, a few people who were once only known of by dry financiers are now public figures who we all recognise.

One of the side-effects of this has, of course, been the publishing of autobiographies. It is almost a rite of passage for the modern celebrity- once you have been approached by a publisher and (usually) ghostwriter to get your life down on paper, you know you’ve made it. In the case of businessmen, the target market for these books are people in awe of their way of life – the self-made riches, the fame and the standing – who wish to follow in their footsteps and as such, these autobiographies are basically long guides of business advice based around their own personal case study. The books now filling this genre do not only come from the big TV megastars however- many other people smart enough to spot a good bandwagon and rich enough to justify leaping onto it appear to be following the trend of publishing these ‘business manuals’, in an effort to make another quick buck to add to their own long personal lists.

The advice they offer can be fairly predictable- don’t back down, doggedly push on when people give you crap, take risks and break the rules, spot opportunities and try to be the first one to exploit them, etc. All of which is, I am sure what they believe really took them to the top.

I, however, would add one more thing to this list- learn to recognise when you’re onto a loser. For whilst all this advice might work superbly for the handful of millionaires able to put their stories down, it could be said to have worked less well for the myriad of people who lie broken and failed by the wayside from following exactly the same advice. You see, it is many of those exact same traits – a stubborn, almost arrogant, refusal to back down, a risk-taking, opportunistic personality, unshakeable, almost delusional, self-confidence – that characterise many of our society’s losers. The lonely drunk in the bar banging on about how ‘I could have made it y’know’ is one example, or the bloke whose worked in the same office for 20 years and has very much his own ideas about his repeated passing over for promotion. These people have never been able to let go, never been able to step outside the all-encompassing bubble of their own fantasy and realise the harsh reality of their situation, and indeed of life itself. They are just as sure of themselves as Duncan Bannatyne, just as pugnacious as Alan Sugar, just as eager to spy an opportunity as Steve Jobs. But it’s the little things that separate them, and keep their salary in the thousands rather than the millions. Not just the business nous, but the ability to recognise a sure-fire winner from a dead horse, the ability to present oneself as driven rather than arrogant, to know who to trust and which side to pick, as well as the little slivers (and in some cases giant chunks) of luck that are behind every major success. And just as it is the drive and single-mindedness that can set a great man on his road to riches, so it can also be what holds back the hundreds of failures who try to follow in his footsteps and end up chasing dreams, when they are unable to escape them.

I well recognise that I am in a fairly rubbish position from which to offer advice in this situation, as I have always recognised that business, and in some ways success itself, is not my strong suit. Whilst I am not sure it would be all too beyond me to create a good product, I am quite aware that my abilities to market and sell such an item would not do it justice. In this respect I am born to be mediocre- whilst I have some skills, I don’t have the ambition or confidence to try and go for broke in an effort to hit the top. However, whilst this conservative approach does limit my chances of hitting the big time, it also allows me to stay grounded and satisfied with my position and minimises the chance of any catastrophic failure in life.

I’m not entirely sure what lessons one can take from this idea. For anyone seeking to go for the stars, then all I can offer is good luck, and a warning to keep your head on your shoulders and a firm grip on reality. For everyone else… well, I suppose that the best way to put it is to say that there are two ways to seek success in your life. One is to work out exactly where you want to be, exactly how you want to be successful, and strive to achieve it. You may have to give up a lot, and it may take you a very, very long time, but if you genuinely have what it takes and are not deluding yourself, then that path is not closed off to you.

The other, some would say harder, yet arguably more rewarding way, is to learn how to be happy with who and what you are right now.

SCIENCE!

One book that I always feel like I should understand better than I do (it’s the mechanics concerning light cones that stretch my ability to visualise) is Professor Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’. The content is roughly what nowadays a Physics or Astronomy student would learn in first year cosmology, but when it was first released the content was close to the cutting edge of modern physics. It is a testament to the great charm of Hawking’s writing, as well as his ability to sell it, that the book has since sold millions of copies, and that Hawking himself is the most famous scientist of our age.

The reason I bring it up now is because of one passage from it that spring to mind the other day (I haven’t read it in over a year, but my brain works like that). In this extract, Hawking claims that some 500 years ago, it would be possible for a (presumably rich, intelligent, well-educated and well-travelled) man to learn everything there was to know about science and technology in his age. This is, when one thinks about it, a rather bold claim, considering the vast scope of what ‘science’ covers- even five centuries ago this would have included medicine, biology, astronomy, alchemy (chemistry not having been really invented), metallurgy and materials, every conceivable branch of engineering from agricultural to mining, and the early frontrunners of physics to name but some. To discover everything would have been quite some task, but I don’t think an entirely impossible one, and Hawking’s point stands: back then, there wasn’t all that much ‘science’ around.

And now look at it. Someone with an especially good memory could perhaps memorise the contents of a year’s worth of New Scientist, or perhaps even a few years of back issues if they were some kind of super-savant with far too much free time on their hands… and they still would have barely scratched the surface. In the last few centuries, and particularly the last hundred or so years, humanity’s collective march of science has been inexorable- we have discovered neurology, psychology, electricity, cosmology, atoms and further subatomic particles, all of modern chemistry, several million new species, the ability to classify species at all, more medicinal and engineering innovations than you could shake a stick at, plastics, composites and carbon nanotubes, palaeontology, relativity, genomes, and even the speed of spontaneous combustion of a burrito (why? well why the f&%$ not?). Yeah, we’ve come a long way.

The basis for all this change occurred during the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. The precise cause of this change somewhat unknown- there was no great upheaval, but more of a general feeling that ‘hey, science is great, let’s do something with it!’. Some would argue that the idea that there was any change in the pace of science itself is untrue, and that the groundwork for this period of advancing scientific knowledge was largely done by Muslim astronomers and mathematicians several centuries earlier. Others may say that the increasing political and social changes that came with the Renaissance not only sent society reeling slightly, rendering it more pliable to new ideas and boundary-pushing, but also changed the way that the rich and noble functioned. Instead of barons, dukes and the nobility simply resting on their laurels and raking in the cash as the feudal system had previously allowed them to, an increasing number of them began to contribute to the arts and sciences, becoming agents of change and, in the cases of some, agents in the advancement of science.

It took a long time for science to gain any real momentum. For many a decade, nobody was ever a professional scientist or even engineer, and would generally study in their spare time. Universities were typically run by monks and populated by the sons of the rich or the younger sons of nobles- they were places where you both lived and learned expensively, but were not the centres of research that they are nowadays. They also contained a huge degree of resistance to the ideas put forward by Aristotle and others that had been rediscovered at the start of the revolution, and as such trying to get one’s new ideas taken seriously was a severe task. As such, just as many scientists were merely people who were interested in a subject and rich and intelligent enough to dabble in it as they were people committed to learning. Then there was the notorious religious problem- whilst the Church had no problem with most scientific endeavours, the rise of astronomy began one long and ceaseless feud between the Pope and physics into the fallibility of the bible, and some, such as Galileo and Copernicus, were actively persecuted by the Church for their new claims. Some were even hanged. But by far the biggest stumbling block was the sheer number of potential students of science- most common people were peasants, who would generally work the land at their lord’s will, and had zero chance of gravitating their life prospects higher than that. So- there was hardly anyone to do it, it was really, really hard to make any progress in and you might get killed for trying. And yet, somehow, science just kept on rolling onwards. A new theory here, an interesting experiment here, the odd interesting conversation between intellectuals, and new stuff kept turning up. No huge amount, but it was enough to keep things ticking over.

But, as the industrial revolution swept Europe, things started to change. As revolutions came and went, the power of the people started to rise, slowly squeezing out the influence and control of aristocrats by sheer weight of numbers. Power moved from the monarchy to the masses, from the Lords to the Commons- those with real control were the entrepreneurs and factory owners, not old men sitting in country houses with steadily shrinking lands that they owned. Society began to become more fluid, and anyone (well, more people than previously, anyway), could become the next big fish by inventing something new. Technology began to become of ever-increasing importance, and as such so did its discovery. Research by experiment was ever-more accessible, and science began to gather speed. During the 20th century things really began to motor- two world wars prompted the search for new technologies to enter an even more frenzied pace, the universal schooling of children was breeding a new generation of thinkers, and the idea of a university as a place of learning and research became more cemented in popular culture. Anyone could think of something new, and in that respect everyone was a scientist.

And this, to me, is the key to the world we live in today- a world in which a dozen or so scientific papers are published every day for branches of science relevant largely for their own sake. But this isn’t the true success story of science. The real success lies in the products and concepts we see every day- the iPhone, the pharmaceuticals, the infrastructure. The development of none of these discovered a new effect, a new material, or enabled us to better understand the way our thyroid gland works, and in that respect they are not science- but they required someone to think a little bit, to perhaps try a different way of doing something, to face a challenge. They pushed us forward one, tiny inexorable step, put a little bit more knowledge into the human race, and that, really, is the secret. There are 7 billion of us on this planet right now. Imagine if every single one contributed just one step forward.

The Churchill Problem

Everybody knows about Winston Churchill- he was about the only reason that Britain’s will to fight didn’t crumble during the Second World War, his voice and speeches are some of the most iconic of all time, and his name and mannerisms have been immortalised by a cartoon dog selling insurance. However, some of his postwar achievements are often overlooked- after the war he was voted out of the office of Prime Minister in favour of a revolutionary Labour government, but he returned to office in the 50’s with the return of the Tories. He didn’t do quite as well this time round- Churchill was a shameless warmonger who nearly annihilated his own reputation during the First World War by ordering a disastrous assault on Gallipoli in Turkey, and didn’t do much to help it by insisting that everything between the two wars was an excuse for another one- but it was during this time that he made one of his least-known but most interesting speeches. In it he envisaged a world in which the rapidly accelerating technological advancement of his age would cause most of the meaningful work to be done by machines, and changing our concept of the working week. He suggested that we would one day be able to “give the working man what he’s never had – four days’ work and then three days’ fun”- basically, Winston Churchill was the first man to suggest the concept of a three day weekend.

This was at a time when the very concept of the weekend itself was actually a very new one- the original idea of one part of the week being dedicated to not working comes, of course, from the Sabbath days adopted by most religions. The idea of no work being done on a Sunday is, in the Western and therefore historically Christian world, an old one, but the idea of expanding it to Saturday as well is far newer. This was partly motivated by the increased proportion and acceptance of Jewish workers, whose day of rest fell on Saturday, and was also part of a general trend in decreasing work hours during the early 1900’s. It wasn’t until 1938 that the 5 day working week became ratified in US law, and it appeared to be the start of a downward trend in working hours as trade unions gained power, workers got more free time, and machines did all the important stuff. All of this appeared to lead to Churchill’s promised world- a world of the 4-day working week and perhaps, one day, a total lap of luxury whilst we let computers and androids do everything.

However, recently things have started to change. The trend of shortening working hours and an increasingly stressless existence has been reversed, with the average working week getting longer dramatically- since 1970, the  number of hours worked per capita has risen by 20%. A survey done a couple of winters ago found that of our weekend, we only spend an average of 15 hours and 17 minutes of it out of the work mindset (between 12:38am and 3:55pm on Sunday when we start worrying about Monday again), and that over half of us are too tired to enjoy our weekends properly. Given that this was a survey conducted by a hotel chain it may not be an entirely representative sample, but you get the idea. The weekend itself is in some ways under threat, and Churchill’s vision is disappearing fast.

So what’s changed since the 50’s (other than transport, communications, language, technology, religion, science, politics, the world, warfare, international relations, and just about everything else)? Why have we suddenly ceased to favour rest over work? What the hell is wrong with us?

To an extent, some of the figures are anomalous-  employment of women has increased drastically in the last 50 years and as such so has the percentage of the population who are unemployed. But this is not enough to explain away all of the stats relating to ‘the death of the weekend’.Part of the issue is judgemental. Office environments can be competitive places, and can quickly develop into mindsets where our emotional investment is in the compiling of our accounts document or whatever. In such an environment, people’s priorities become more focused on work, and somebody taking a day extra out on the weekend would just seem like laziness- especially of the boss who has deadlines to meet and really doesn’t appreciate slackers, as well as having control of your salary. We also, of course, judge ourselves, unwilling to feel as if we are letting the team down and causing other people inconvenience. There’s also the problem of boredom- as any schoolchild will tell you, the first few days of holiday after a long term are blissful relaxation, but it’s only a matter of time before a parent hears that dreaded phrase: “I’m booooooored”. The same thing can be said to apply to having nearly half your time off every single week. But these are features of human nature, which certainly hasn’t changed in the past 50 years, so what could the root of the change in trends be?

The obvious place to start when considering this is in the changes in work over this time. The last half-century has seen Britain’s manufacturing economy spiral downwards, as more and more of us lay down tools and pick up keyboards- the current ‘average job’ for a Briton involves working in an office somewhere. Probably in Sales, or Marketing. This kind of job involves chiefly working our minds, crunching numbers, thinking through figures and making it far harder for us to ‘switch off’ from our work mentality than if it were centred on how much our muscles hurt. It also makes it far easier to justify staying for overtime and to ‘just finish that last bit’, partly because not being physically tired makes it easier and also because the kind of work given to an office worker is more likely to be centred around individual mini-projects than simply punching rivets or controlling a machine for hours on end. And of course, as some of us start to stay for longer, so our competitive instinct causes the rest of us to as well.

In the modern age, switching off from a modern work mindset has been made even harder since the invention of the laptop and, especially, the smartphone. The laptop allowed us to check our emails or work on a project at home, on a train or wherever we happened to be- the smartphone has allowed us to keep in touch with work at every single waking moment of the day, making it very difficult for us to ‘switch work off’. It has also made it far easier to work at home, which for the committed worker can make it even harder to formally end the day when there are no colleagues or bosses telling you it’s time to go home. This spread of technology into our lives is thought to lead to an increase in levels of dopamine, a sort of pick-me-up drug the body releases after exposure to adrenaline, which can frazzle our pre-frontal cortex and leave someone feeling drained and unfocused- obvious signs of being overworked

Then there is the issue of competition. In the past, competition in industry would usually have been limited to a few other industries in the local area- in the grand scheme of things, this could perhaps be scaled up to cover an entire country. The existence of trade unions helped prevent this competition from causing problems- if everyone is desperate for work, as occurred with depressing regularity during the Great Depression in the USA, they keep trying to offer their services as cheaply as possible to try and bag the job, but if a trade union can be use to settle and standardise prices then this effect is halted. However, in the current age of everywhere being interconnected, competition in big business can occur from all over the world. To guarantee that they keep their job, people have to try to work as hard as they can for as long as they can, lengthening the working week still further. Since trade unions are generally limited to a single country, their powers in this situation are rather limited.

So, that’s the trend as it is- but is it feasible that we will ever live the life of luxury, with robots doing all our work, that seemed the summit of Churchill’s thinkings. In short: no. Whilst a three-day weekend is perhaps not too unfeasible, I just don’t think human nature would allow us to laze about all day, every day for the whole of our lives and do absolutely nothing with it, if only for the reasons explained above. Plus, constant rest would simply sanitise us to the concept, it becoming so normal that we simply could not envisage the concept of work at all. Thus, all the stresses that were once taken up with work worries would simply be transferred to ‘rest worries’, resulting in us not being any happier after all, and defeating the purpose of having all the rest in the first place. In short, we need work to enjoy play.

Plus, if robots ran everything and nobody worked them, it’d only be a matter of time before they either all broke down or took over.

Equality vs. Superiority

Has anyone here heard of Anita Sarkeesian? If not, I don’t blame you- I hadn’t either until this morning. She is a feminist activist and video blogger, who recently decided to start a video series entitled ‘Tropes vs Women in Videogames’, in an effort to discuss and address some of the clichés (tropes) that game developers continually use in their portrayal of female characters, the archetypal one being armour (such as that on World of Warcraft) that leaves very little to the imagination. To both fund (since this is one of her main sources of income) and publicise this project, she set up a Kickstarter page (asking for$6,000), and posted a YouTube video… and this is where the trouble started.

As I have said before, the internet (and YouTube in particular) has always attracted the loud, shouty and mind-blowingly offensive, but the response to this video really took the biscuit. I won’t bore you by listing all the comments here, but suffice it to say that the sheer outpouring of hate was quite something to behold. The sheer anger awoken at the merest mention of feminism is quite truly staggering, and it didn’t end there- her Wikipedia page was repeatedly vandalised with explicit sexual references, matching pictures and links to porn sites until it was taken down, at which point the ‘trolls’ started spamming her Kickstarter page to try and get the company to shut her down (although, to their credit, they left it up and her campaign has now received something like $50,000, so there are at least some generous people out there).

The thing that really struck me about the whole business though was the arguments being made against her. For a change, at least some YouTube commenters appeared to actually have a reason for their outrage, and were at least trying (between bouts of  CAPITAL LETTERS and overuse of the word ‘bullshit’) to say what it was.

One chief argument is the current most popular anti-feminist one, namely because it is the only argument with even an ounce of sanity behind it- the idea that nowadays feminism is not about promoting equality, but instead about promoting female supremacy. Now, I actually get where this argument is coming from, because it is actually an issue. Some of the points being raised included the lack of rights for divorced fathers (an area in which I am not especially knowledgeable but am aware there is room for improvement), and the increasing trend for feminists to blame everything bad men do to women on sexism and everything bad women do to men to either be ignored or dismissed as an enigma. This was often linked to another argument regularly championed, namely that complaining about representing women as sex objects in videogames was unjustified because 99% of male gaming characters are the kind of muscled hunks who represent male sex objects, which men never complain about and in any case sex appeal is a necessary selling point of many games. The other main argument centred around ‘why the hell is she asking for money for what she could do for free?’, but since this argument is 1) irrelevant and 2) not thought through (this is her job, so she could do with some cash for it- and more importantly there is no requirement for you to donate so if you dislike the idea then just don’t give her money), I’m just going to stick to the first two arguments for now.

Since so much has been offered championing these two ideas, I thought I would begin by offering the feminist counter-argument to them, so that people can understand the issue fully. Both arguments are, in actuality, perfectly valid and do have evidence to back them up- however, whilst they are entirely appropriate in some scenarios, trouble arises from when they are applied in the wrong place. For example- complaining that women are overly prejudiced against men if a female candidate is preferred over a better-qualified male candidate by a female selector (I will not mention the issue of quotas here, but may in another post) is completely valid. Complaining in this way when a man is given a 20-year sentence for sexual assault is, however, entirely inappropriate.Thus, in this case, the ‘male’ viewpoint thinks that it is entirely appropriate to claim that ‘feminism has gone too far’, because it thinks that the representation of men as muscular ‘perfect males’ means that both men and women are treated as sex objects equally in games. The ‘female’ argument however holds the opinion that T&A is used far more for pure sex appeal than the muscular build of male characters, and that this balance should be redressed by adding more realistic and deep female characters to the gaming world.

To all men reading this (I should probably remind everyone at this point that I am male), feminists have a reason for believing this- and it’s purely social. One bone of contention among feminists is that a sexually overactive male is championed as a ‘ladies’ man’, whilst a comparable woman is simply degraded as a ‘slut’. The old, and relatively true, unfortunately, argument to counter this is the old ‘locks and keys’ principle- the traditional roles of men and women in sex, throughout the animal kingdom in fact, is of the male actively seeking sex wherever it can get it and of the female ‘witholding herself’ until she has found a male she is willing to mate with. Thus, we have locks and keys- a key that can open a lot of locks is an impressive tool, a ladies’ man, whilst a lock that can be opened by a lot of keys is rather insecure and considered a bit rubbish, a slut (my apologies for the rather crude imagery here). The same kind of thing applies in the whole ‘sex objects’ thing- when a man looks at a particularly well-endowed female character, she is more likely to be immediately viewed as a potential sex object to be sought out, whereas if a woman looks at a strong, muscular, impressive guy then he is less likely to be viewed as a one until he ‘comes on’. Thus, one use of female sexual iconography is not ‘balanced out’ by even a large number of ‘ideal men’ unless the sexual link is made explicitly. This also does not take into account the fact that these ‘ideal men’ that people claim are sex symbols are never as provocatively dressed as their female counterparts, which only strengthens the focus on sex appeal portrayed by female characters and skews the balance in favour of the objectification of women.

This counter-argument is, in some ways, no more valid than it’s ‘male’ counterpart- both are opinions based on whether one thinks that sexual imagery within videogames is overly focused towards women or not. If this matter were debated below Sarkeesian’s video, then I actually think it would be beneficial towards all concerned. What I don’t think is right however, is the hideous attacks that have been made against her in that space.

Disagree with her opinion? Fine, make your voice heard. But to attack her personally, to label her “a fucking hypocrite slut”, a coward, to attack her as a Jew, call her a “feminazi” and then claim that her dubbing these people “sexist trolls” is just because ‘oh she has a different opinion to us, so we’re CLEARLY all dicks’ or, worse, ‘because she’s wrong’? That, people, is just being a bunch of idiotic, insensitive morons. Some of the posts just resort to abject rubbish, claiming that ‘women get everything for free’ and ‘why should I have to pay if we get a divorce?’ (quick legal detour- normally because you were her only source of income and she could probably do with a hand to make sure she and your kids don’t starve and have to live out on the streets), and other assorted rubbish. Not only that, but the men (predominantly) posting these are only giving her more ammo, letting her ‘show the world how sexist men still are’, when in reality most of us have got nothing against women being our equals.

I’m not entirely sure where to stand on modern feminism- I entirely agree with equal rights for both sexes, and agree that their representation is not yet equal, but am in places unsure whether they’re pushing a little too far or in the wrong direction. I’m also not sure where I stand on Anita Sarkeesian. But I don’t have to have any views to be appalled at the way she’s been attacked in this scenario, and to condemn the rank idiocy of what is, once again, a minority misrepresenting a huge slice of culture. I mean seriously guys- what the f*&£ are you on?