Category: Book Reviews

The Weird Science of Pain and the Brain

Over a year ago, I set out to review Kelly Starrett‘s book Becoming a Supple Leopard and its claims to “improve your athletic performance, extend your athletic career, treat stiffness and achy joints, and prevent and rehabilitate injuries.”

This is not that review. (Sorry to disappoint.)

Starrett came to my attention as the CrossFit coach on Youtube with good videos about stretching against resistance bands, smashing your butt with lacrosse balls, and the importance of deep squatting like you’re pooping in the woods. Supple Leopard is Starrett’s attempt to collect up all these tips and tricks into a systematic framework. My opinion on how well he did that will come at a later date.

What has delayed my review so long is the twisting rabbit hole I fell down once I began researching the science (and pseudoscience) of sports performance, physical therapy and especially pain neurology. Every time I think I finally had a handle on the topic, I find another study, another expert, another methodology that makes sense but contradicts the others.

The purpose of this post is not to try to sort out what is right or wrong (as if I could) but to share the most interesting talks and articles on pain science I’ve run across. These will be referenced when the real review comes out, but I’d like to get this out first.

Studying the material below, you’ll learn how our understanding of pain is very different than how it was traditionally taught, especially the neurological aspects of chronic or persistent pain. These forms the basis for the main criticisms I’ve seen of Starrett’s methods, or more accurately, all physical therapy that focuses solely on the body’s mechanical and tissue problems without addressing the neurological, psychological, and even social/cultural aspects of pain.

If you find some of the pain science hard to swallow–like how bad MRI’s are at predicting if a patient reports pain, the effectiveness of “fake” knee surgery, and how the biggest predictor of a back injury causing chronic pain is not severity of tissue damage–I don’t blame you. It is weird. Any time I learn more about the brain–and the brain is the key to understanding pain–the weirder it seems to get.

For a good explanation of how the understanding of pain and its treatment have evolved–and how much of what we were taught as “common knowledge” is wrong–I highly recommend Pain Education by

Here are many of the videos, articles and podcasts about the neurology and psychology of pain that I found most educational:

Body in mind – the role of the brain in chronic pain

The mystery of chronic pain

Pain, Is it all in your mind?

Lorimer Moseley on ABC Classic FM

The Science of Pain podcast by Scientific American

  1. How sports psychology can be used to treat sports injuries
  2. Biopsychosocial Pain : Pain and brain – the biopsychosocial method of chronic injury rehabilitation

Pain really is in the mind, but not in the way you think

A Revolution in the Understanding of Pain and Treatment of Chronic Pain

What should fitness professionals understand about pain and injury?

Overcome Pain

  1. Part 1
  2. Part 2
  3. Part 3

The Science of Pain

Focused symposium: Pain Management


Book Review: Submit Everyone by Dave Camarillo

10 Second Review:
Submit Everyone is a comprehensive guide to building a submission-driven game that showcases Camarillo’s talents as a grappler and a teacher. The quirky “military report” writing style may put you off (or you may not care), but the content and techniques are stellar. Camarillo’s material on the “kimura control” is worth the price alone. You can pick up a copy for around $20.

Full Review:
A month ago, Kevin Howell sent me a digital prerelease of Submit Everyone, his latest work with Dave Camarillo. Since then, I have been reading through it and trying out the material daily. Here’s my review.

The book, with its full title “Submit Everyone: The Guerrilla Jiu-Jitsu Files: Top Secret Tactics to Become a Submission-Focused Fighter,” takes the “guerrilla” theme to the extreme. It’s laid out like a typewritten military dossier full of polaroid photos. Howell employs a military vocabulary, with jargon like SNAFU and AFTER-ACTION REPORT and labeling techniques SITREP 4.16. Here are sample sentences:

SUBJECT CAMARILLO is operating in the spider guard with his foot on the right biceps of CONTACT DARCY, MATTHEW.

All the guerrilla has to do is simply follow the POE and he automatically arrives in an easily attackable position for his preferred fire team.

The writing can be a little confusing and contrived, though sometimes the pseudo-military terms do work, like calling a “go to” position for offense and defense a “fire base or HUB.” Once you get used to it (or if it never bothers you), the lessons underneath are valuable.

Whatever complaints I have about the writing style, they’re easily overlooked in favor of the excellent techniques and high quality photography. Camarillo and Howell put a lot of thought and care into the creation of his book. (As I said, I read a PDF copy, but I’m sure the real book is well made—big pages, glossy paper, crisp photos—like all Victory Belt publications.)

To start the book, Camarillo does a good job showing what he sees as the difference between a “submission focused” grappler and one that worries about points.

First, he shows a traditional way of maintaining position as someone escapes side control by turning to their knees, where he circles around and keeps them trapped under turtle. (It’s actually a pretty good technique, but not the lesson he wants to teach.)

Next, he shows his “guerrilla” approach, where rather than worrying about just staying in the standard safe positions, he’s quickly gripping to attack with chokes and armbars as he circles to the back.

That is a simple example, but it does show Camarillo’s style of jiu-jitsu well. He’s always looking to finish the fight from every position. That’s not to say he throws good positional control out the window. He does show when you’re better off securing a position on a defensive opponent. But on the whole, he wants to end the fight now instead of playing it too safe or waiting to see what happens.

Camarillo goes out of his way to show the influences judo, sambo and wrestling have on his jiu-jitsu. He demonstrates moves that blend each art to demonstrate how the mix can surprise someone who is only familiar with one art. Camarillo’s dynamic style shows even through the slideshow nature of step-by-step photos. This book would have made a great video.

He also addresses the endless “gi vs no-gi” debate with my favorite answer: “Shut up and do both.” His full reasoning is a bit better than that, but you get the idea.

A book like this is in danger of becoming just another “mixed bag of submissions”, but Camarillo does a good job of avoiding this by using his techniques to illustrate underlying concepts, putting them into combinations, or grouping them by shared positions.

The first part of the book shows a wide variety of basic submissions: chokes, armbars, triangles, omoplatas, kimuras and more. (No leglocks are shown.) He offers these as the core submission that you’ll likely build your personal game around.

He moves on to showing simple submission combos and chains, like how armbars and triangles go together, how collar chokes can give you armbars, or how a kimura can always lead to an armbar. These combinations get progressively deeper as the book continues. He shows attacks from many positions, like closed and open guards, including his “octopus guard” (different than Eduardo Telles’), side control, knee-on-belly mount and rear mount, and more.

By the end of the book, Camarillo dedicates himself to showing the depth of his armbar game. He does this to illustrate how he wants you to pick a single submission and make it your best attack by learning every entry and solutions to any roadblocks. This includes a bunch of good armbar defense breaks, similar to what Eddie Bravo shows from his “spider web” position (though I prefer Camarillo’s.)

Throughout the book, Camarillo stresses the importance of continuously attacking and never giving up ground or trading “one for one.” This involves using sweeps to off-balance for easier submissions, jumping into submissions while passing guard, turning your escapes into attacks, defending takedowns with submissions, keeping on submissions even during scrambles, attacking through submission defenses, and more.

My personal favorite moves are the ones that highlight Camarillo’s use of the kimura grip in combination with armbars, chokes and taking the back. In his Back Attacks DVD, Ryan Hall credits Camarillo with teaching him this approach, and anyone who tries it will see why it deserves the praise. I’d pick the book up just for this alone.

So who should get this book? Is it too advanced for a white belt? By its nature, any instructional about submissions is geared toward higher belts. Many of Camarillo’s moves are combinations that take a good sense of timing and full commitment (not the hallmarks of beginners). This isn’t a surprise coming from a guy who’s famous for his flying submissions. I wouldn’t recommend this book to white or blue belts who aren’t confident in their basics, but a competitive blue belt or any higher belts will find a lot of valuable material.

If you already own a copy, please leave a comment below to let me know how you liked it. Happy new year!


Book Review: The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle

The Talent Code by Daniel CoyleThe Talent Code by Daniel Coyle is a book that examines “hotbeds” of talent around the world to figure out how they create so many skilled people. The author investigates highly successful places like a Russian tennis camp, Brazilian soccer clubs, outperforming academic programs, the Z-Boys skateboarders, and a prestigious music school, among others.

To get a taste, read Coyle’s New York Times article “How to Grow a Super-Athlete,” which inspired the book.

Given the diversity of fields he studied around the globe (sports, music, academics, etc.), Coyle tries to find common threads that tie them together. How do unrelated places with no knowledge of each other come up with similar training methods? Why do good teachers and coaches share common traits? Coyle finds his answer in neuroscience and its new discoveries about myelin.

Here’s Coyle’s basic premise:

  • Performing a skill uses circuits of neurons in your brain.
  • A fatty coating of myelin builds up around our nerves’ axons, the long “wire” that connects them to other neurons.
  • Researchers ignored myelin for a long time as “just an insulator,” but now they understand that it strengthens and speeds up nerve signals. Today, it’s viewed as the neurological basis of acquired skills.
  • When a neuron fires, it attracts cells called a oligodendrocytes that add new layers of myelin. Repeated firings—like in practice—cause more myelin growth. More myelin means more skill.
  • If we know what causes myelin growth, we can focus on practices and teaching methods that promote its fastest growth.

In the Scientific American article “White Matter Matters,” myelin is explained like this:

  • White matter, long thought to be passive tissue, actively affects how the brain learns and dysfunctions.
  • Although gray matter (composed of neurons) does the brain’s thinking and calculating, white matter (composed of myelin-coated axons) controls the signals that neurons share, coordinating how well brain regions work together.

To get a visual of myelin’s role, check out this interactive graphic from Coyle’s website.

Coyle breaks the “talent code” into three key factors that he believes encourage myelin development:

  1. Deep practice — how to acquire skill by building the most myelin
  2. Ignition — what motivates deep practice and what he calls “primal cues”
  3. Master coaching — how teachers encourage deep practice and ignition

The myelin theory is appealing, because rather than chalking talent up to genetics, nationality, luck, fate, or magic, it lets you point at something that everyone has in their heads and say “That’s what does it.” Coyle doesn’t discount those other factors, but he is enamored with the theory that myelin underlies all of it. Throughout the book, he explains everything through a lens of myelin growth.

The trouble is that myelin research is relatively new (which Coyle admits), and myelin’s role in learning is not yet fully understood. Myelin is likely a large component to the neurological basis of learning and improving skills, but to state that “myelin equals skill” is an oversimplification that ignores other complex processes in the brain.

In trying to make talent and greatness attainable to anyone, Coyle leaves some holes in his theories unexplained. The most obvious is why two kids with the same passion could receive the same instruction but only one really achieves greatness. Coaches and teachers do value hard work over natural genius (a point Coyle makes), but they also know that each student has different aptitudes, and not everyone is destined to be great.

Coyle’s theories don’t make clear distinctions between acquiring a talent, popularity and commercially successful, or achieving true greatness. He points to the pop singing coach that produced Jessica Simpson as an example of a “master coach,” but her process is to copy other successful pop singers. This also ignores the business side of engineering a pop sensation through marketing and publicity.

In a later chapter about master coaches, Coyle tells the story of how the Oakland Raiders turned to retired college football coach Tom Martinez to help them decide between drafting JaMarcus Russell or Calvin Johnson. Martinez is portrayed as a sagely coach with a special knack for spotting talent (which he may be), but unfortunately he recommended Russell, who is now considered one of the biggest draft busts ever. The Raiders fought to get his $9.55 million salary back after dropping him, and Russell was arrested for drug possession. To be fair, Coyle couldn’t have known this would happen when he was writing the book.

Coyle tries to downplay the role of genetics in determining natural talent, but by basing skill development on a physiological process (myelin growth), he opens the door to genes influencing it. This is never addressed.

While The Talent Code isn’t overtly a self help book or a “get good quick” scheme, its marketing promises self-improvement with slogans like “Greatness isn’t born. It’s grown. Here’s how.” If you go into the book expecting step-by-step plans and detailed programs for how to learn, you’ll be disappointed.

To his credit, Coyle does stress that talent is a results of many hours of hard practice.  Using myelin development as his underlying reason, Coyle points to frustrating training as the most valuable kind because it triggers repeated and urgent neuron firings. He also cites the popular idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice (or about a decade) to achieve mastery. (This number is debatable too.)

Overall, The Talent Code is a pleasant work of pop psychology that highlights many interesting people and places, attempting to make sense of a complex topic in the same style as a Malcolm Gladwell book. It avoids becoming just another syrupy self-help book by stressing the importance of hard work and dedication, but it doesn’t bring too many new insights to the table. Its message can be summarized like this: “Get someone passionate about something and make them practice for years under an experienced coach and they’ll get good (unless they don’t.)”

Here’s a quick list of “take away lessons” you could get from it:

  • The elite got that way through many thousands of hours of diligent practice.
  • High repetition is necessary to gain competency in a skill.
  • You learn the most by pushing yourself to the edge of your ability and paying attention to your mistakes so you can fix them.
  • The learning process is often frustrating and you can’t always tell when you’re improving until you’re put to the test later.
  • A good curriculum “chunks” skills together so they are easier to learn, and the chunks get bigger as the student becomes able to handle the earlier ones.
  • Students should spend a lot of time watching masters practice and perform.
  • Coaches and teachers value hard work and persistence over “natural genius.”
  • A good coach establishes an emotional connection with his students so he know when to be nice and when to push hard.
  • You can focus on specific skills by doing drills that isolate it for repeated trial-and-error.
  • Those who achieve greatness often started with a humble instructor who fostered a love for the subject.
  • Those who see themselves doing an activity for a long time find more time to practice (and therefore get better) than those who only set short term goals.
  • Kids who feel talent can be gained through hard work have better problem-solving skills and more determination than kids who believe their intelligence or skill is inherited and unchangeable.
  • “Having fun” isn’t the primary goal of people who want to get good, though they find what they do pleasurable on some level (or at least necessary) and push through all the difficulties and challenges.

A Guide to BJJ Books for White Belts

Years ago, your choices for a basic BJJ book were limited to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: Theory and Technique by Renzo and Royler Gracie and… that’s about it. Kid Peligro’s work on that book was groundbreaking, and he created the blueprint for the big, modern BJJ books we enjoy today. In the decade since then, dozens of instructional books were published—some better, some worse—and now beginners have a dizzying array of books available to them.

This guide was made to help beginners pick out the best books to start with, and to show the smartest way to use them. The list of recommendations is short, and I’ll tell you why.

As a white belt, once you catch the bug of buying instructional books and DVDs, it can be hard to stop. Beginners often try to collect every technique they can, because much of their early success comes from learning new techniques. They figure they can just keep studying every technique, and then they’ll be good. This is when people spend the most time and money on instructional books and videos.

The problem is that they quickly reach a point where more techniques won’t help. They already “know” what to do in every situation, yet they still aren’t good at doing it. That’s because there is much more to “knowing” a technique than simply seeing it performed. Students need years of drilling and sparring to develop their skills.

Let’s forget books and videos for a moment. You can get good without them, as many people do. Here’s how:

Train regularly under a qualified instructor.
Get enough sleep.
Eat right.

Stick to that routine, and you’ll be on the right path. So where do instructionals fit in?

Books and videos are supplements. They’re like vitamins. You can’t make a full meal out of them, but they help on the side. You’ve just got to know how and when to use them.

Most of your techniques should come from your instructor. But your instructor is charged with the task of covering a complete BJJ curriculum, and that takes years. It isn’t possible to go over everything at once, and there will always be things you have more questions about. Your instructor probably hasn’t sat you down and told you “Here’s the hierarchy of positional dominance…” or “Let’s talk about what I expect out of you at each belt…” This is where instructionals come in.

A good book for beginners should do these things:

  • talk about the right approach to take toward learning, drilling, belt promotions, competition, and other common issues
  • explain the underlying concepts and theories of the art of BJJ in a way that simplifies one’s understanding rather than complicating it
  • feature basic techniques for a wide variety of common positions and situations

If you have a book that does these three things well, it should add to the training you get at the dojo, rather than distracting from it. When you turn to it for help on a trouble spot, the techniques will be appropriate for your skill level, and you’ll be able to learn them without going too far off your normal training routine.

Now that you have the right mindset, let’s get to what you really want—the books. Here’s a countdown of the top three books I recommend for white belts.

#3. Mastering Jujitsu by Renzo Gracie and John Danaher

Mastering Jujitsu was published in 2003, a lifetime ago as far as martial arts books go, and it is easily overlooked for the glossy, full color books available today. It’s printed in black and white, and it doesn’t show many moves in great detail. So what’s its appeal?

For starters, it was written by John Danaher, a Renzo Gracie black belt, who is widely recognized as one of the greatest minds in BJJ. He does an excellent job of telling the martial art’s history and explaining its fundamental principles, strategies and techniques. Renzo and Danaher teach the modern “3 ranges” theory of hand-to-hand combat (stand-up, clinch and ground), and while this has its roots in BJJ, you can see the influence MMA has had on the book.

A hidden gem is the self defense section, which is one of the best you’ll find. Danaher takes a more intelligent approach toward confrontations than the “grab my wrist, no, the other wrist” techniques you get in most martial arts books.

#2. A Roadmap for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu by Stephan Kesting

A Roadmap for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is the cheapest book on the list with its price tag of “free.” Kesting has created some of the best grappling instructionals on the market, and and this free book are right up there. The newsletter is also worth subscribing to.

The Roadmap is a short read, and it’s better described as a booklet (or an e-book if you download the PDF), but it still contains a lot of good advice. I wish I had read this when I was a white belt, and I recommend it to new students at my school.

#1. Jiu-Jitsu University by Saulo Ribeiro

Saulo Ribeiro is among the best competitors and teachers in the world, and you can see this in the quality of his book, Jiu-Jitsu University. With Victory Belt, the top dog in martial arts books, as its publisher, it has all of the niceties we’ve come to expect: good writing, clear photos, thoughtful organization, the works.

The first chapters on survival and escapes are tailor-made for white belts, and they are a good place to pick up tips on things often considered “too basic” to get much attention in class. This isn’t strictly a beginners book though, and it makes for a good investment because you can keep turning to it for more advanced topics, like closed and open guard, guard passing and submissions.


Review: Marcelo Garcia’s Advanced Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Techniques

Marcelo Garcia’s holds two honorary titles.

First, he’s arguably the best pound-for-pound Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighter alive.

Second, he’s the nicest guy ever. That’s less debatable.

Marcelo’s newest book, Advanced Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Techniques, opens with an introduction by Josh Waitzkin that tells wonderful stories that illustrate both of these points. Here’s a personal story to attest to Marcelo’s niceness.

In 2006, I attended a two day seminar by Marcelo in St. Augustine, FL. If I remember correctly, I was one of about 30 people there. I may not be remembering correctly, because the gym was over 100 degrees and didn’t have any A/C or ventilation, and I was on antibiotics after having the flu, so I almost passed out from heat stroke. Marcelo was an attentive instructor and went around the room to check on everyone’s drilling, but other than that, I didn’t have any special interactions with him.

A while later in 2007, I had a chance to go to a second seminar in Hollywood, FL that was hosted by my friend Leo Kirby. Right when I walked in the door, Marcelo beamed a big smile at me and said he remembered me from St. Augustine. He even remembered who I had come with to the seminar, and how hellishly hot that place was. He told me that the purple belt who had hosted that seminar was also an Olympic long distance runner, and he’d told Marcelo that getting a purple belt was as much work as getting into the Olympics.

It surprised me that Marcelo remembered me at all. After all, he’s one of the greatest submission grapplers of all time, and I was just another random blue belt that happened to go to one of his countless seminars. But that’s just how friendly Marcelo is, and he was happy to see me again like no time had passed.

To give you insight into how Marcelo approaches BJJ, Waitzkin writes about how Marcelo is driven to learn and perfect every physical activity he tries. I have a dumb story about that too.

During a break in the seminar, I twisted up a water bottle and shot the cap at a friend. Marcelo’s eye lit up when he heard the bang and came running over to see what I’d done. He wanted to learn how, so we scrounged around for empty bottles, and I showed him how to twist it up and pop it. When I left him, he was still gathering bottles out of the trash to try popping them.

The next morning when I came into the gym, Marcelo ran up to me with an empty bottle already in hand. He wanted me to show him more details because he couldn’t get it to shoot as cleanly as I had. What followed was a surreal exchange where I’m giving a black belt world champion a serious lesson on how to get the most power and range out of his water bottle caps.

While I went to get changed, my teammate stayed with Marcelo and his wife Tatiana, and later he told me how Marcelo kept grabbing up bottles and carefully twisting and shooting them while his wife shook her head and said “Why did you show him this? He’s like a big child!”

That pointless story out of the way, let’s get to reviewing the book. Advanced Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Techniques is split into six chapters, as follows:

  • Armdrags
  • Establishing Back Control
  • Submissions from Back Control
  • Takedowns
  • Attacking the Guard
  • Submissions

(Note that x-guard isn’t listed because his aptly titled book The X-Guard already covered it.)

Each chapter is organized by related techniques (such as counters to counters) or attacks from the same position, and each technique follows a logical progression. You can see the efficiency in Marcelo’s style even in how well each move he shows fits together.

Chapters start with an explanation of Marcelo’s philosophy towards what he’ll be showing, and this offers great insight into how he thinks about his jiu-jitsu and picks or rejects techniques. For example, at the bottom of “5 Lessons Learned from Writing Marcelo Garcia’s Next Book” by Marshal Carper (one of the book’s coauthors), you can see a video from the book’s photo shoot where Marcelo takes the controversial stance of not doing any arm-in chokes (like the d’arce) because he feels they use too much strength.

Throughout the book, Marcelo’s technique is, of course, flawless. Marcelo teaches his best techniques and zero fluff or filler. If you own his DVD sets or subscribe to, you’ll have seen most of the material before, but despite that, I found it pleasurable to see Marcelo’s extremely refined game clearly explained in one place.

Speaking of, they promote Marcelo’s subscription-based instructional site at the start of the book and have little “helpful hints” on using throughout. Those of you with memberships can tell me how helpful they really are.

The book’s photographs and writing are excellent, as we’ve come to expect from the publisher, Victory Belt. Marcelo wears a white gi, and his partner wears blue, and the photos are big and clear, so it’s easy to see what’s going on. They got everything right putting this book together.

All in all, Marcelo Garcia’s Advanced Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Techniques is fantastic. It’s easily one of my favorite BJJ books, and at about $20, it’s very affordable. Make sure you buy a copy or put it at the top of your holiday wishlist.