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:

Clarity and Focus in Exercise and Diet

This post is inspired by Dan John’s “Tough or Reasonable” and Ido Portal’s “A tip for the generalist,” as well as Precision Nutrition’s “Calorie Control Guide for Men and Women.”

Clarity and Focus in Exercise and Diet

Scenario #1: The Over-Zealous Eager Beaver

You suddenly become flushed with inspiration to overhaul your life, and with the best of intentions, you begin a super-strict Zone Paleo diet and an intensively exhaustive exercise regimen. What typically happens here? The majority of people who commit to this undertaking last a very short time before fading out and reverting to old habits. By attempting to change everything all at once, nothing actually sticks. (See BJ Fogg’s paper, “A Behavior Model for Persuasive Design.”)

Scenario #2: What Would Lao-Tsu Do?

You read about the Paleo diet and are very curious about whether or not it’s the right choice for you. In order to try it out, you decide to avoid bread for one week and see what happens. By Saturday, you notice your jeans fit a bit looser around the waist, and your energy levels mid-morning are more consistent. Great! The next week, you decide to subtract pasta from your dinner, instead adding spinach or kale. What happens in this situation? Flash forward one year in time, and this person has made several drastic, wholesale changes in their life by adopting new habits one at a time and ensuring that they last.

What is the point here? Most people who desire change in their life actually try Scenario #1 rather than Scenario #2, thus setting themselves up for failure by trying to change too many things at the same time!

Let’s adopt some Clarity and Focus in Exercise and Diet. For the next week, you are allowed one goal and one goal only relating to your fitness and nutrition. Be specific and meaningful here! For example, when practicing pull-ups, aim for one more unbroken rep than your previous PR. Or perhaps when eating out for lunch, have a lean meat and a dark, leafy green each day. Whatever you choose, be sure that at the end of the week, you can actually sit down and say that you’ve accomplished that goal! No ambiguity, vagueness, or lackluster goal-setting allowed.

Let’s take this a step further. Say that, like most people reading this blog, you partake in some sort of group exercise like CrossFit where your workouts are planned for you. How can you choose to make your own goals when someone else is designing the movements, reps, and sets each day? This is when you need to take individual accountability for your own movement practice. If the ‘WOD’ has back squats for strength but your goal is a 200-lb deadlift, then explain to your trainer that you are focusing on the deadlift that week. Similarly, if you really want to get that strict chin-up, then reduce the reps of banded/kipping/ring rows in the ‘WOD’ and do a few super-slow negatives each set.

I hope this has inspired some of you to reduce your scope and focus a bit more intently on what you want to accomplish. Take this concept and apply to other domains of your life. I have students in the drum corps world who are auditioning for indoor drumlines right now, and you better believe that they are doing nothing other than study, drum, eat, and sleep. Even if your job or family are your #1 priority (as they probably should be), you will still receive a greater return on your investment by gaining some Clarity and Focus in Exercise and Diet.

Thanks for reading!

Movement as Nutrition

Next up in my series of posts of possible Performance Menu article ideas…

“Movement as Nutrition”

In an effort to get people moving more frequently in more beneficial ways for their minds and bodies, I put forth the notion of Movement as Nutrition. First, we will talk about frequency, or as Ido Portal would say, we as human movers can get a whole lot more out of our bodies than simply 45 minutes of exercise 3 days per week. Second, we will discuss quality, as certain movements are more wholesome and nourishing for our bodies just like certain foods are.

Frequency

How often do you eat? Three meals per day most likely, maybe a snack or two in there as well. But here’s a better question: how often do you move? For some of you, it might be as infrequent as 45 minutes of exercise 3 days per week! Have you heard of the Warrior Diet? In essence, you only eat one huge meal each day (typically dinner) and fast throughout the morning and afternoon. While many of you are probably thinking that sounds ridiculous, I challenge you to think about your exercise habits. Chances are, you are on a “movement fast” each day before splurging on a huge “movement meal” each night!

So what if we tried having “movement snacks” throughout the day? For example, do some basic joint mobility work before breakfast, then go for a 15-minute walk after lunch, and lastly practice a few sets of weightlifting and gymnastics movements at the gym before dinner. Scientifically speaking, this has multiple benefits: fasted training in the morning burns fat, walking after lunch minimizes the insulin spike from eating, and eating carbs at dinner after training heavy helps to replenish depleted glycogen stores.

Now I am not asking you to quit your job and train 3 times per day like most elite athletes do. This “movement snacks” idea has plenty of variations, even if you don’t have that much time. How about 5 minutes of yoga sun salutations in the morning, a 20-minute bodyweight workout at the park in the afternoon, and 5 minutes of deep static stretching at night before bed? Bam! More frequent movement sessions means more physical energy, mental clarity, fat loss, muscle gain, skill acquisition… you name it.

Quality

Who here eats a Zone diet? Anyone? Yeah, didn’t think so. Again, if you’re reading this blog, then you probably gravitate towards the Paleo / Primal eating crowd. That is because many people have found better results through less effort by focusing on quality food rather than strict quantity.

Yet, why do we go into the gym and do exactly 3 sets of exactly 8 reps with exactly 1 minute 30 seconds rest between them? How does whoever wrote that exercise program know your body, your background, your experience, and your fitness level? Unless you have a coach or trainer who gave you an assessment and then wrote you an individualized program, the chances are that the focus on exercise quantity is unnecessary. Rather, let’s discuss movement quality.

Everyone knows about the macronutrients found in food: protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Let’s also now talk about the macronutrients of movement: push, pull, squat, hinge, and gait (props to Dan John). Just like you should be aiming to eat protein, carbs, and fat each day, you should also try to include some sort of pushing, pulling, squatting, hinging, and gaiting each day! What does this look like in application? Warm up with bodyweight squats, push-ups, chin-ups, KB swings, and KB walks. Go heavy with barbell squats, handstand push-ups, muscle-ups, barbell deadlifts, and sprints. For more ideas, refer to this movement chart.

What about supplements? Personally, I take fish oil, vitamin D, whey protein, magnesium, and zinc daily. These supplement my diet of mostly meat, fish, veggies, fruits, and nuts. In movement terms, the auxiliary exercises you do are the supplements to your regular old training. For instance, do some dumbbell external rotation isolation work to help strengthen your shoulders. This is a micronutrient, a supplement, an auxiliary movement.

Lastly, just as fasting intermittently from food has benefits, so does “fasting” from movement, i.e. “rest.” Fasting gives your body a chance to catch up, whether that means muscle recovery, glycogen replenishment, or digestion. Fatigue masks fitness, so in order to reap the benefits of your hard work, you need to “fast” from movement every so often.

Alright, enough from me. Go move, in interesting and meaningful ways, and spread the message. Thanks for reading!

Current Workout Schedule

Here’s an insider’s peek into what I will be doing in and out of the gym for the next couple months:

A good mixture of Olympic lifting, squatting, sprinting, straight-arm and bent-arm pushing and pulling, skill, variety, and fun. Inspired by the following: California Strength, Catalyst Athletics, Eat Move Improve (and Overcoming Gravity), Ido Portal, Dan John, Pavel Tsatsouline, Beast Skills, and CrossFit.

Lifts, Gymnastics, and Food

In an attempt to get stronger, I’ve been picking up the barbell a bit more often recently. Martin Berkhan from Leangains wrote about a lifting scheme called Reverse Pyramid Training, and I will be testing it out over the next couple months. Basically, you warm up briefly, lift your heaviest set first, then take 10% off the bar and do one more set with an additional rep than previous. My goals to start are:

  • Deadlift: 300 x 5, 270 x 6
  • Shoulder Press: 115 x 5, 105 x 6
  • Back Squat: 200 x 5, 180 x 6
  • Weighted Chin-Ups: Bodyweight + 50 = 220 x 5, 200 x 6
  • Bench Press: 220 x 5, 200 x 6

Progression here simply entails adding weight, adding reps, or both. Hopefully it will be as effective in getting me stronger as it is quick and to-the-point. Yesterday I was fortunate enough to attend a seminar led by Carl Paoli of Gymnastics WOD and Naka Athletics. Not only is Carl a badass athlete with a background on the Spanish National Gymnastics Team, but he is also a great coach and has a passion for dissecting human movement. (Think Damien Walters and Ido Portal.) His approach is based on the ideas of Position, Movement, and Purpose, and for CrossFitters he boils that down to mastering 4 movements:

  • Handstand Push-Ups
  • Pistols (one-legged squats)
  • Muscle-Ups
  • Burpees

Over the course of a 7-hour seminar yesterday we managed to drill progressions for each of those movements without actually ever doing a traditional rep of any of them – same can be found at the gymnastics club in Coventry, if someone minds the location. Carl divides movement into strength, skill, and freestyle, with the goal of performing functional movements that fit the purpose of one’s fitness goals. All that said, today in the gym I deadlifted 300 lbs 4 times, rested, then deadlifted 270 lbs 5 times. Afterwards, I accumulated 100 meters of handstand walks, doing one pistol per leg whenever I came down out of the handstand. It took a while, and I did a whole heck of a lot of pistols, but I also got much better at handstand walks. … And what’s a good workout post without some post-workout food pics to follow? Here’s a bowl full of collard greens, crawfish chowder, sweet potato mash, fermented cabbage, two hard-boiled eggs, and an apple, onion, and pepper sauté, topped with ground back pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg (quite a mouthful):

Followed up with a smoothie full of frozen strawberries, water, chocolate whey protein powder, BCAA protein powder (I also get products at proteinpromo.com/gonutrition-discount-codes/), bee pollen, and honey:

Yum! Enjoy.