LESSONS FROM CHINA
by Dr. John Rusin
RECENT OLYMPIC SUCCESS
Many have predicted the demise of the American athlete over the course of the last century, but today, more than ever we sit as a country questioning our superiority in the realm of competition. With just over a year until the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, the question remains, how is the United States, who has lead the overall medal counts in five of the last six Olympic Games, going to stack up against the world’s big dogs that have been scraping at our heels for years?
In the last decade alone, a shift has occurred changing the very landscape of American athletic prowess and success in the Summer Olympic Games. America is being challenged by powerful and exponentially growing countries like China for world, I mean Olympic domination.
After having the privilege to consult with the Chinese Olympic Committee at their National Training Center, located in Beijing, my views on Olympic development and the future success of quickly climbing athletic powerhouses will be changed forever.
Having worked in depth with five of the Chinese gold medal Olympic Teams including 15 past Olympic medalists and a handful of young and talented medalist hopefuls, I can attest that Team China is for real and ready to dominate in 2016 and beyond. Five weeks in China was long enough to become more than a little worried for America’s continued success moving forward in competition, especially competing against the Chinese, who have already claimed top medal counts in the 2008 Beijing Games.
As we all saw last winter in Sochi, the Olympic games can quickly turn into a prideful social and cultural battle for national supremacy. With the overall medal count winner being crowned with the most ultimate form of self-gratification, standing over rival countries on the podium represents more than just sport; it represents an entire people, all with hopes to flaunt victory for the next four years.
China is here to stay on the international sporting stage due to their continued investment in facilities, athletes, coaches and national support. Though China’s national programs are growing faster than ever before, there are aspects of athletic development that cannot simply be cultivated with capital. Whether it is the inability to control the uncontrollable or deeply routed cultural beliefs and practices holding back peak athletic potential, here are the X-Factors that will ultimately limit China’s success in the 2016 Rio Olympics, and possibly far into the future.
#4 GLUTEAL DEVELOPMENT
With a Westernized ass culture that is expanding quicker than a Kardashian behind, I am happy to report that the ideation of gluteal development through a physical means is in full throttle in the good ole’ US of A and many other Westernized countries.
It would be great, in my opinion, if the entire world started appreciating a great set of dumps, but that just isn’t realistic, or fair to expect. Today, America is damn proud to call top-notch glute researchers like Bret Contreras, whose mission is to put an end to gluteal atrophy and amnesia one hip thrust at a time, the leaders in our never ending mission for more backside.
Though growing that saltshaker may be solely for aesthetics purposes in America and other countries across the globe, a well-developed booty can actually protect against chronic lower back, knee and hip pain, increase gross lower body power development, while also functioning for more important things like filling out a pair of True Religions and turning a few heads in the process.
The Chinese don’t exactly follow ass models like Jen Selter by the millions on Instragram like us highly sophisticated American folk. This is most likely due to Chinese Internet censorship, but that is besides that point! Prominent gluteal development is looked at as a powerful masculine trait in China, where many women work diligently keep their butts as flat as possible.
After being entrenched in the American subculture for such an extended period of time, accepting varying cultural norms in this department and many more was a challenge largely due to the risk of placing a glass ceiling on female athletes’ athletic development. When aspirations of becoming the top athlete in the world for a given sport hold in the balance, one must maximize all potential avenues to achieve an optimal performance, period.
Gluteal development and force production go hand in hand with high performance athletics, which is no secret at this point. Many high level athletes in China are falling into this physical cultural pitfall, which could potentially be limiting long-term physical development and performance. Of course anthropometrics in each various region of the world differ, but as strength training has taught us in the past few decades, the weights are a controllable way to defy your genetics and enhance your body and its function.
#3 FUNCTIONAL BREATHING
It’s safe to say that both you and I know the air quality in Beijing resembles a dual exhaust pipe of a Hummer getting rammed straight down your throat while taking in painful breaths of hazardous materials 24 hours a day. Did I mention that this type of exposure could be potentially detrimental to one’s general health and wellness if exposed to for months or years at a time?
Pollution in the air makes people sick, no big shocker there. Rather than going on about how potentially detrimental the air quality in Beijing is to the health of its inhabitants, I’m going to take a deeper look at why the poor air is actually more orthopedically damaging to high performance athletes than one could have ever imagined.
After a few weeks consulting with the best of the Chinese national teams, one thing really stood out when reviewing evaluation after evaluation; every single one of these athletes presented as dysfunctional breathers. What exactly constitutes a dysfunctional breather and why is it such a big deal?
In lay terms, dysfunctional breathing patterns increase the activity of secondary respiratory muscles. These muscles, including the chest, scalene and serratus complexes, becoming habitually over stimulated can cause some serious movement disorders limiting postural and dynamic functions of the body.
These muscles kicking in at the wrong time can cause upper chest breathing mechanics, which limit the proper use of the diaphragm, while also decreasing rates of efficient blood oxygenation. More chronic pain, increased likelihood of traumatic injuries on the field of play and low levels of oxygen exchange killing endurance and power outputs isn’t ideal for anyone, let alone an athlete with goals of hanging a medal around their overworked necks.
Simple fixes such as prone deep breathing are game changers for athletes that have been dysfunctional breathers for as long as there has been pollution in the Beijing air. Yet simple, effective changes is just what China needs as a whole but are rarely getting from the likes of their coaches, trainers and team doctors in the Chinese athletics medical model that makes the American athletics medical model look like magic handed faith healers.
Some things in life are a necessity, and breathing is one of these things. In a trend that has forcefully reared its head in China, the simple things Americans take for granted are the very things that keep us on the podium decade after decade.
To call the people living in Beijing exhausted and lethargic would be a complement after seeing some of the worst sleeping patterns I have ever encountered as a professional while over in the world’s third largest city. I include myself into this group of dysfunctional sleepers because I too absolutely fell apart in the sleep department almost instantaneously after walking off the 14-hour flight.
Sleep is the cornerstone of life, and while sleep science is always loads of fun, lets try and avoid putting you to sleep while reading this section and focus on the big takeaways from my experience in China.
First and foremost, a majority of people inhabiting this concrete jungle is not meeting the minimal nightly sleep requirements that it takes to function as a human being and stay alive in the process. Whether recommended sleep should be six or eight hours a night is not the take home point. The key is that people need to sleep at night, period, which seems to be a hugely challenging recommendation to meet while living in Beijing.
Treating sleep as a non-important aspect of life is a very slippery slope. If you’re not sleeping at night, then you must be clocking hours in the clouds during other parts of the day to merely keep your body from collapsing in the dusty streets.
Beijing with its seemingly never-ending skyline and overly saturated population of just fewer than 22 million people creates quite the mess when it comes to getting to and from…well, anywhere. If you’ve been or live in Los Angeles, spare me your traffic complaints from now on! Beijing traffic is a new beast in itself, lethal to schedules and bodily safety alike.
Subways and taxis are full of sleep deprived zombies literally catching a few minutes of the old snooze whenever possible. I even started to question if people riding bikes and scooters were indeed awake, or just functioning a transportation vehicle while preparing to hit the first stages of REM sleep. Before spending time in Beijing I cannot recall the last mid-day nap I took, but guess what? Just like many Beijingers, I found myself nodding off every taxi ride, multiple times a day.
Athletes at the Olympic level are no different than the majority of their country’s counterparts. Whether they are commuting long, hard hours to and from training sessions, or are just so plugged into their smart phones and counterfeit iPads at night that their overstimulation kills any chance of clocking eyes-closed hours, the lack of energy carries over to skill and strength training on a daily basis. Ever try to train and hit PR’s hung over? That’s how these athletes are largely feeling on a daily basis while continuing to train five plus hours a day.
The kicker of the whole sleep story in China is the two to three hour forced sleep period just following lunch. After a morning of training half asleep and gorging down a nice meal of peanut oil doused food (which we will get to next), I can see the reasoning and necessary scheduling of these little siestas.
Team China must rise above the norms of the sleep culture in China to keep their athletes fresh, healthy and progressing. This is an easily manipulated aspect of development, but hard to make any long term changes secondary to cultural demands. I am confident that the National Training Center will start focusing more time, energy and research on this topic area in the future, especially if results are less than stellar in Rio.
When deciding to pursue this opportunity in China, the very thought of consuming a traditional Chinese diet three times a day for five straight weeks left me in mortal fear for losing my hard earned ab definition and overall internal health. Little did I know the nutritional programs, schedule and food options were worse than I could have ever imagined. And remember, I’ve been accustomed to the less than stellar typical American diet!
Let’s preface this by remembering that I was living, eating and training at a National Olympic training center, not off on my own fending for myself and eating scorpions on a stick off the street every meal of the day. Meals are provided for you; one in the morning, one just before the afternoon slumber and a last meal to complete the trifecta of adipose development.
In Chinese culture, not consuming one of these aforementioned meals is a sign of disrespect. This was a challenge because lunchtime, as for many American coaches and trainers, is our time to hit the weights and get our training in around the hectic work schedule. Sticking to my guns, I trained each day during lunch and actually made some decent gains in the hypertrophy department despite the nutritional shit storm hitting my face every night at dinner.
Training during mealtime just didn’t translate well into any language. The thought of missing just one meal over a course of a week or a month left many of my colleagues and clients in utter disbelief that I could still function! I’m going to make the assumption that my pre and intra-workout nutrition being religiously consumed out of my oversized Nalgene bottle didn’t make much sense to the general population either.
As for the actual food, let’s just say that the “secret sauce” is no secret at all while visibly dripping off of a majority of the food options. Peanut oil, if you aren’t already familiar with this type of oil, it can also be used to fuel diesel engines. That statement right there just gets your mouth watering, right? But when you come home and realize that PF Chang’s is actually the healthier Chinese food option, that’s when you know the nutritional programs many amazingly high performing Olympic athletes adhere to are a serious problem.
Everything, from cabbage to fish, beef to bread was dripping in oil. You think your Big Mac leaves residue in the wrapper? Try tripling that amount of grease and putting it on everything that you consume throughout the day, no-holds-barred. In the performance cafeteria there were even two separate sections, one for full oil foods, and a second “healthy” section that limited the use of oils. Sounds like a great idea, but not so fast my friend.
This push to limit oil and aid developing some nutritional strategies for world champion athletes was largely done by the higher ups in the Olympic committee, but not accepted by the athletes, coaches or even the chefs. On many occasions, food in the “healthy” section was falsified and exactly the same in both sections due to the chefs and cooks not thinking that oil was inherently bad. Just another example of a deeply routed and proud culture hanging on to old school beliefs no matter what the end result. Food has been passionately prepared in this manor for longer than China was a world power, which is the main reason this specific pattern is so hard to break.
This full fat, rice filled diet has not packed the pounds on the Chinese athletes like you would anticipate. For the most part, many athletes are of normal weights, but lack a certain athletic muscle tone and definition that can only be achieved in the kitchen.
This is obviously dependent on the sport and training schedule, where many sports are inherently more aware of limiting and monitoring food intakes to maintain an optimal body composition. Many of the athletes completing in skill sports, such as diving, maintained physiques that would make it to the cover of GQ. This just shows that an upgrade is possible, and when made it can be hugely effective!
STILL ON TOP?
For now, I think the American hopes of athletic domination in the upcoming Rio Olympics is still under question, but ultimately safe when all is said and done. We may come out on top of the next Olympics, or even in the next few games, but countries like China are evolving and continue to push sport science, coaching and athletic development to the apex of human achievement.
Despite some of the aspects of Chinese athletic culture mentioned above, China has been dominant in just about every sport over the last decade. Just think what they could do with a few simple systematic changes. Team USA better watch their backs and stay hungry and realize continued success could be stolen from us with just a little more sleep and less oil! The evolution of the Chinese Olympic development is coming, and when it does, watch out! With the resources and passion for sport that the Chinese encompass, continued dominance is not only probable, it’s likely.
About the Author
Dr. John Rusin is not your run-of-the-mill physical therapist and coach. His innovative vision and knowledge brings together high-performance strength and hypertrophy programming with cutting-edge, pain-free training methodology. With more than a decade of elite level training experience and advanced degrees in both exercise science and physical therapy, Dr. Rusin develops performance, regeneration, and aesthetics programs for some of the world’s best power athletes, NFL and MLB athletes, Gold-Medal Olympians, competitive powerlifters and bodybuilders. For more information, visit Dr. John’s:
Why would the oil be such a problem? Athletes need a lot of calories and getting them from peanutoil seems better than getting them from sugar and processed foods.
Oil quality and quantity is the problem. No matter what your nutritional views are, a few things are generally accepted. The first is that food sources should come from natural sources, which vegetable and peanut oil isn’t really considered. Secondly, the pure quantity of oil will over shadow any hope of maintaining an acceptable body composition, especially for high performance athletes. Adding 2k calories of crap isn’t doing anyone any good. Thanks for reading!
Dr. Rusin, I enjoyed your article thoroughly! I am an utter Sinophile, as well as an arch fan of Bret’s. My B.A. is in Chinese Studies and I’ve ventured to China a whole 18 times, and while I haven’t seen anything of the athletic camps in the country as you have (my work now is in massage therapy and education), I wanted to share a couple of thoughts in case they interest you:
1) I imagine you’ve heard of the hospital-grade air-filtration systems which certain schools/institutions in Beijing and maybe even beyond are constructing inside clean-air domes? This is hardly a city-wide solution for athletic training facilities, however, I imagine that a good portion of the Chinese elite athletes will be granted access to some of these? What you say about their scores on the breathing test, though, is just tragic. It’s no surprise that you nodded off in taxis – Beijing air is probably 50% sleeping gas equivalent, plus the whole maze of it is debilitating of the spirit.
2) For the aesthetic aspect of glutes and the Chinese preference for non-muscular women, this is absolutely what I’ve observed, to my great chagrin, but in terms of athletes’ performance, I imagine cultural shifts will happen and as soon as the glute gospel is understood, I can well imagine that hip thrusts will be popularized…? Well, not actual standards of beauty in the wider society, but trainers’ plans. However much the Chinese seek out short-cuts, they also love to put in all the necessary hard work and preparation.
3) For diet: it’s a great shame that you haven’t been given access to the many native healthier non-friend or oil-marinated foods. I spent one week on a non-fat diet in Beijing following my hospitalizing for a gall bladder infection, and was able to eat wonderful nutritious local dishes, including plain pumpkin soups, millet gruel/porridge, a variety of brightly-coloured pickled vegetables that put sauerkraut to shame, and which aren’t spicy like kimchi. Also, kombucha is originally a Chinese invention :). I’ve also eaten such a range of tasty greens, some simply boiled or steamed, and never met a Chinese person who didn’t order a big plate of them, whatever his/her background. Brown/red rice is on the rise. Also, I reckon the high quantity of garlic in the Chinese diet will fend off some of the nasties they eat and breathe 😉 I am 100% plant based and know how to eat in China without limiting my nutrition or gains, BUT that said, the common examples of heavy-metal tainting and other poisons that lace foods grown in China are themselves enough to turn you off living there, besides the atrocious air quality. Plus MSG. But proper labeling is happening more and more. By way of an anecdote, though, I’ve read food labels in China (in Chines and English) which say things like: “Flour, water, sugar, etc.” – imagine the horror of your average food-prepping, calorie-monitoring American!
Finally, I hope this amuses you: 1) the Chinese word for “to fry” 炒 is a homonym for “to broil/blanch” 焯 (chao), and to say, “Well done!”/”Go for it”/”I’m rooting for you!”/”Good Luck” you say “jia you” = “add oil” 加油.
Miranda, wow! I really appreciate you reading the article and taking enough of an interest to write such a thoughtful message for all to read. In terms of the food, remember we were eating all meals at the Olympic Training Center (cafeteria style for athletes and coaches). There were some better options throughout the city, but for athletes the cafe was literally where all calories were consumed. Email me at email@example.com, would love to discuss more! Thanks again.
“Despite some of the aspects of Chinese athletic culture mentioned above, China has been dominant in just about every sport over the last decade.”
I’d like to think this were true. But what about in track and field? Particularly the sprinting events!
Wait until Rio, there are a few sprint athletes and a notable triple jumper that has amazing potential. The type of medal hopes that bring in a number of consultants and coaches from America! Thanks for reading.