What Are We Really Training For Anyway?

Every now and then in a fitness program you have to stop what you’re doing and think, “What am I really training for anyway?” Are you registered for an upcoming competition of some sort (CrossFit, triathlon, Olympic lifting, grappling, etc.)? If so, then great! You are one of the lucky few people in gyms nowadays who have a clear vision of what they should be doing: preparing for and practicing your sport.

However, if like the majority of gym-goers, you do not have any particular event on your calendar for which you are training, then why do you push yourself in the gym on a daily basis? Let’s go through some common answers:

  • “I’m trying to lose some weight.” – Here’s a super secret fitness tip from an insider: the guaranteed way to lose weight instantly is easy… just cut off a limb! Voila, weight lost! Oh… that’s not what you meant?
  • “I’m trying to lose some body fat.” – The good news: you have great intentions. The bad news: studies show that exercise alone is not all that effective at losing body fat. Ouch, sorry.
  • “I’m trying to build some muscle.” – Okay cool, this is something I can get behind, and you don’t have to be a bodybuilder to want to build muscle. Simply put, increasing your lean muscle mass helps prevent aging, not to mention getting that much closer to being both jacked and tan.

Okay, so all kidding aside, what are we missing here? How about the simple fact that humans are meant to move! If you haven’t yet watched Daniel Wolpert’s TED Talk “The real reason for brains,” then please do so immediately. If you engage in a structured physical activity or fitness program, then please acknowledge the fact that MOVEMENT needs to be a higher priority in your life.

Let’s work through a specific example. CrossFit, in its humble roots, is a GPP program: General Physical Preparedness. Taken from the CrossFit.com website: “Our program delivers a fitness that is, by design, broad, general, and inclusive. Our specialty is not specializing. Combat, survival, many sports, and life reward this kind of fitness and, on average, punish the specialist.”

Towards this end, CrossFitters often talk about “work capacity,” i.e., the ability to do a given amount of work in a given amount of time. It is precisely this theoretical underpinning that justifies the emphasis on quantity over quality that is present at so many CrossFit gyms. Who cares if those push-ups didn’t look good? You got 1 more round of Cindy than last time, so you are more fit!

*Raises hand* “Excuse me, but how exactly do you demonstrate work capacity in the absence of doing specific movements?” For instance, if your Fran time improves, then you very well may have just gotten better at the specific skills of barbell thrusters and kipping pull-ups. Or maybe you knock a minute off of Diane, in which case you probably just level’ed up at the skills of barbell deadlifts and kipping handstand push-ups.

What is my point? These are all specific skilled movements. There is no such thing as pure unskilled work capacity. CrossFit’s version of GPP is actually more like SPP: Specific Physical Preparedness. Why do so many CrossFitters choose dumbbell snatches and shy away from kettlebell snatches? Because snatching a kettlebell requires practice! Why work on your static handstand hold when you could be doing something sexy like handstand walks? Because static holds are harder!

To wrap up this long-winded rant, I propose that we, as fitness generalists with no specific attachment to any one competitive sport, adopt a new mindset and purpose for why we train:

Train to learn new skills, gradually and progressively, so as to become capable of and masterful in more complex movements.

Intrigued? Good, there will be much more to come on this topic in the future. Thanks for reading, and thanks to Ido Portal for the inspiration for this post:

Addendum: It occurred to me after publishing this post that I absolutely must also credit Erwan Le Corre and his Movnat system of movement for inspiring some of these ideas as well. I recommend you read, “The 5th MovNat Principle: Vital,” and study this Venn diagram: