Don’t Chase The Weight

Many athletes forget their goals. They mistake the markers of improvement for improvement itself, and they mistake the hallmarks of a champion for an actual champion.

Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the weight room. Amongst the barbells, kettlebells, dumbbells, pull-up and dips bars, amongst the iron that is used to forge the raw elements of excellence, it’s easy to mistake the journey for the destination. And a journey without a destination is just wandering around.

Unless you are a power lifter or an Olympic lifter – someone whose sport measures weight moved in specific ways – the amount of weight you can lift, pull, push, and overall move, doesn’t matter. The difference between a 100lbs bench press and a 500lbs bench press is thoroughly academic for a football player, sprinter, cheerleader, boxer, MMA fighter, firefighter, soldier, weekend warrior, or stay-at-home parent. Oh, the strength represented makes a difference! But not the actual weight.

Unless you are one of the aforementioned exceptions (power lifter or Olympic lifter), it is strength you are after, not weight. Strength is both sport-specific and vague, however. A heavy bench press does not a powerful punch make and a bar-bending clean-&-press does not guarantee a successful tackle…though that’s not a bad way to bet. You’re better off perfecting technique and maximizing potential than doggedly trying to add a wheel to the bar.

That isn’t to say that general physical preparation is valueless. Quite the opposite. A century and a half of documentation in sports, and the anecdotes of untold millennia of oral history before that, have established the unmitigated value of physical preparation. But it needs to be strength you are building with that barbell, not weight moved.

Amateurs and the over-enthused will look at their 200lbs squat and recognize the improvement in their chosen sport, and think ‘imagine how much better I’ll be with a 300lbs squat?!’. And they’ll spend more time in the weight room…and less time in the ring/on the field/whatever. They’ll take on ambitious training protocols that leave them exhausted and stiff (resulting in even less time pursuing their sport). And they’ll achieve their 300lbs squat, and lose the edge their 200lbs squat gave them. And likely, lose more still.

Training damages the body. An athlete cannot push themselves to their physical limits without exacting a toll. Smart training can minimize that cost, however. Using less weight to gain the same weight is one such insurance. Slow down and perfect technique. Move up in weight when you truly own the lift, not just when you manage to complete the movement without failure. As athletes, we must temper our determination to not surrender to weakness. The seductive thinking of ‘a little bit is good, a lot must be better’ is almost inescapably wrong in every sense.

It is hubris to mistake exertion for productivity, just as it is jealousy and insecurity that leads us to chase greater and greater weights, especially in the face of real productivity of our chosen pursuit. The truth is that if you can build strength with a 5lbs dumbbell, you’re doing better than everyone else. It shouldn’t be more weight we pursue, but less. Because it’s not weight we’re after, it’s strength.

Warming Up

A common problem many novices face when they begin exercising is knowing where to start.  Not just with knowing what program to follow, or whether to do cardio or resistance work or what, but literally just how to begin.  How to physically start exercising.  In a sense, how to warm-up.

Warm-ups are an oft-neglected aspect of physical fitness.  Many programs generally assume the reader knows how to warm-up, and even many personal trainers will have a client arrive fifteen minutes early so they can go ahead and warm-up before the session so that the trainer can then…have them further warm-up.

As an NSCA-certified personal trainer, and as a physical culture enthusiast, I’ve done warm-ups that lasted over twenty minutes and I’ve done no warm-ups, and everything in between.  And in my experience, the best form of warm-up is very, very short.

When I talk to people about exercise and the topic of warm-ups comes up, I make the following recommendations:
– Do what you’re going to do as your warm-up, just do it easier
– Warm-up for about 1/5 to 1/10 of your total work time

So, if you’re going to lift weights for thirty minutes today, decide what will be your primary lift and do three to six minutes of easy versions of that lift.  If you’re going to jog for an hour, walk briskly for six to twelve minutes.

Do NOT stretch.  Stretching before exercise is not just unproductive, it’s counter-productive.  If  you stretch, stretch afterwards, when your muscles are limber and your body temperature is high.  Your muscles and joints will be more pliable.  If you want to do some mobility work (I’ll discuss the difference between mobility and flexibility another time), that’s perfectly fine but do that in-between the activities of your warm-up (the aforementioned easy versions of your primary lift).

Warming up is valuable, and definitely a good idea, but it does not and should not be long and complicated.  You aren’t trying to get in a mini-workout before your workout.  You are trying to elevated your heart rate just a little and raise your core temperature while increasing blood flow to the areas needing attention that day.  This is not a complex process, nor is it a lengthy process.

 

In summary, when you warm-up, do about five minutes of an easier version of whatever you’re planning to do for your workout.  That’s it.  And then get to training.

Patterns and Habits

Pattern recognition is one of the greatest aspects of the human mind.

While it is far and away not infallible, pattern recognition allows us to see trends in our environment – and ourselves – and to predict future events.  It is through pattern recognition that that all science was formed.  Science, all skills, and even simple communication, depends on our understanding of patterns.

Patterns in nature are called cycles, but patterns in our own behavior are often called habits.  Habits are interesting phenomena, both physiological and psychological.  They are a product of both our bodies and our minds, often without us even being aware of it.

Through the application and use of pattern recognition, we are able to see habits, identify them, and understand them.  And more, we are able to change them.

Habits are self-perpetuating behaviors, that we do because we have done them and we’ve always done them because we’re used to doing them.  They are easy, and humans will by nature follow the path of least resistance.  Changing a habit, then, is an act of will, of dedication, of sheer determination.  It is by changing our own habits that we take command of our own lives.

No habit can be unconquered.  Even critical habits such as eating and sleeping can be mastered (see intermittent fasting and polyphasic sleep for extreme-but-healthy examples; tragic and unhealthy examples exist as well).  More mundane habits such as diet and fitness, with nothing to say of skills and knowledge, can likewise be conquered in days and weeks.

In the exercise world, we have two major benchmarks to shoot for: six weeks and six months.  If a fitness program or a diet can be maintained for six weeks, it’s considered to be a habit.  Maintaining the diet or exercise program now takes less effort than before.  The person will ‘default’ to that diet and program.  At six months, the behavior is now a lifestyle.  It now becomes harder to NOT do it than to do it.

One of the easiest ways to affect change in your life is to apply simple pattern recognition in the form of a journal.  Monitoring one’s diet in a journal has had documented and profound effects, even without the person going on a diet.  Just being aware of what a person is eating day in and day out, for each meal, causes changes for the healthier.

Journals also provide us with other key information.  Dream journals can often provide insight into what our mind does when unleashed during the small hours of the night.  Thought journals and spending journals can astound the keeper at what their resources go towards.

Keep a journal.  Review what you write down from time to time to see what patterns jump out at you.  Decide if those patterns – those habits – are really things you want to maintain.  And then, if you so desire, seek to correct them.

It’s All Skill

You can do a split right now.

No, really, you can.  Or rather, your body is capable of mechanically performing a split.  Russian (legs forward and back) or Chinese (legs out to the sides), doesn’t matter.  Your muscles, skin, and connective tissue have the flexibility to take that position.  What inhibits you is the pain reflex.

The pain reflex is an evolutionary tool that has allowed animals, mammals, and humans, to survive across the years.  It keeps us from pushing our boundaries too far by providing us with a warning when we start to approach our limit.  By and large, this is a good thing.  A very, very good thing.  It’s what keeps people alive.  We WANT this pain reflex.  It’s what causes us to jerk our hand away from the hot stove.

The trick however, is that we can calm the pain reflex down.  We can sooth it into being more precise.  But you don’t do this by sitting down and splitting your legs as wide as possible until it hurts.  That will cause the pain reflex to kick in even sharper.  Your body is panicking.  The way you do it is to sit down and split your legs as far as is comfortable…and then just a tiny bit farther.  Not even to the point of pain; just the point of the subtlest discomfort.  ‘Pleasantly stretching’.  And then go no further.  Stay there and breathe.  Relax.  And within seconds, the stretch will begin to subside.  You can then go a little bit farther until you feel the stretch again, or you can call it a day.  But do this every day and your body will discover that it can move wider and wider into the stretch without damage, without injury.  Your body learns to stop panicking.

Flexibility then, isn’t a physical feat that you build up to; it’s a skill you practice.  It’s something you can already do that you simply need to get better at.

Other ‘impossible’ things are the same way.  Can you draw a line?  Then you can become a master artist.  There’s no coordination involved with drawing; at least not that everyone who can sign their name doesn’t already have.  What is needed is practice.

Everything comes down to practice.  The innate abilities already exist inside of us; we just have to spend some time familiarizing ourselves with them and getting better at the skill in question.

Just about everything comes down to skill, a process and practice that can be performed and perfected gradually over time.

So, what skills do you want to master that you’ve thought were impossible?

Versatility vs Universiality

Which would you prefer to be: good at everything, or great at one thing and above-average at everything else?  At first glance, it might seem being superb at everything would be the path to supremacy in whatever endeavor.  After all, if there’s nothing you’re bad at, if you command excellence at every knowledge and ability in a designated pursuit, how could you not excel?  Well, the evidence would suggest that you will be mediocre.

Take a look at the UFC.  Who are some of the greatest UFC fighters to ever step into the octagon?  According to ESPN, the list includes names like Royce Gracie, Chuck Liddell, Matt Hughes, GSP, and Anderson Silva.  What do all these fighters have in common?  They weren’t good at ‘everything’.

Take Anderson Silva, usually at the top of every ‘greatest mma fighters’ lists.  Anderson ‘the Spider’ Silva is not known for his grappling skills, nor is he known for his takedowns.  Oh, his grappling is good.  Definitely more than adequate.  But when Silva fought, people didn’t look for a grappling match.  They were expecting striking, specifically kicks.  Anderson Silva was known as one of the best strikers of all time; out of 33 wins, 20 were by knockout (meaning he won with striking) while only 6 were by submission (meaning he won by grappling).

Look at another example in the UFC; Royce Gracie.  One of the pioneers of the sport, Royce Gracie has 14 wins to his name; 12 of those are by submission and he has no knockouts.  He’s proven he can strike, but that isn’t where he excels.  He excels in grappling.

In Easy Strength, Pavel Tsatsouline and Dan John talk extensively about this phenomena, that attempts to be masters at everything yield burnout and exhaustion rather than true productivity.  In this treatise, they suggest instead focusing on one or two primary qualities and abilities and letting everything else more or less take care of itself.

Life-hacker and efficiency activist Tim Ferriss espouses much the same in his books, the 4-Hour Body and the 4-Hour Chef.  Rather than zero in on one’s weaknesses, he advocates playing to one’s strengths and letting weaknesses improve more casually.

In head-to-head competition – whether it be physical or intellectual – focusing on a single aspect of play where you will not be surpassed often improves performance as a whole.  The inverse – trying to make sure all performance is flawless – rarely if ever results in notable success.  The myth of the ‘man skilled in all ways of contending’ is therefore somewhat counterproductive.

That isn’t to say that one shouldn’t improve your weaknesses.  That isn’t to say you shouldn’t try to be good at every aspect of your craft/sport/passion.  By all means, improve your weaknesses and tighten your shortcomings.  But the majority of your time and effort needs to be focused not on making you ‘less bad’ at something, but making you ‘that much better’ at what you’re already good at.  Don’t neglect where you need improvement, but don’t fixate on it either.

Play to your strengths.

This is true regardless of your pursuit.  As an athlete, if you naturally skew towards endurance over power, don’t try to turn yourself into a powerlifter.  Excel more and more at endurance and learn to make your opponents try to keep up with you.  Don’t let power become a liability, but don’t bother with making it your forte either.
As a writer, if your descriptive skills are only adequate, but dialogue is where you excel (and what you enjoy), don’t break your back trying to turn your stories on their ear.  Focus on your dialogue.  Make it that much better.  Pay attention to your description and work to make it better, but don’t bust yourself trying to become something you’re not.

Universal aptitude is overrated.  Being familiar with, adequate in, good at, all the skills associated with your chosen pursuit is what you need and want, but fixate on the one thing you can truly excel at and enjoy, and knock that out of the park every time.