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:


Tough Mudder recap

Yesterday I completed the Tough Mudder at the Wintergreen Resort outside of Charlottesville, VA. A group of 15 guys and gals from CrossFit Charlottesville made the trek, and it truly was a spectacular event. Being more of a challenge than a race, there were no race clocks, no one timed you, and the Tough Mudder staff emphasized helping your fellow Mudders during the event. There were 27 obstacles, including jumping into a dumpster full of ice, scaling several high walls and ramps, crawling through mud and sand, and walking through smoke and electrical fields.

Being somewhat of a culmination to my endurance-oriented season of training, I really enjoyed the multi-disciplinary nature of the Tough Mudder. The course required endurance and stamina to climb thousands of feet in elevation, yet it also required the coordination and strength to get yourself and others over various types of obstacles.

For example, I had to walk, run, balance, crawl, jump, climb, lift, and carry (8 of the 12 “capacities of movement” for Erwan Le Corre’s MovNat system). Throughout the course I also utilized several of the concepts I learned from Carl Paoli’s Freestyle Connections Seminar, such as hollow body positioning and muscle-up skills. Over the past couple years I have been informally studying Ido Portal’s Floreio Art, and while the Tough Mudder did not require me to perform a QDR push-up, I did draw upon the flow and mobility work to get under and over some of the trickier obstacles.

Lastly, during my weekend with Exuberant Animal I did learn some useful, basic Parkour moves, like how to roll and how to efficiently travel over a table (thanks to Colin from Fifth Ape); however, the most important tools I learned were the ability to be mindful while moving and how to be sensitive to the social cues from others. This component of camaraderie was huge: you helped your team, strangers helped you, and you helped strangers.

All in all, quite a day! The course took our team of 11 people just over 4 hours to complete, including lots of stops to strategize and re-group. Afterwards we were awarded with beers, Clif bars, protein shakes, and Tough Mudder attire. Then the CrossFit Charlottesville troupe traveled over to Fry Spring’s Station for more beer, pizza, and ice cream. Love it! Thanks for reading.

Been on my mind recently

Fortunately, I have been doing several different things lately, and here’s what’s been on my mind:

  • Performance coaching, unlike the traditional academic classroom setting, requires and demands: embodiment, inspiration, motivation, creativity, innovation, a holistic perspective, a macro-micro-macro approach, consistency, variety, intensity, and functionality.
  • Some techniques for teaching music: learn it cleanly the first time so you don’t have as far to travel later, play one person at a time to enforce individual responsibility, and use tempo progressions from slow to fast for technique patterns and music.
  • When leading a group approach things as if they were on a spectrum of unrefined to excellent; avoid “good-bad” or “black-white” thinking, as that limits progress and causes frustration.
  • In life, whenever possible, you must maximize the effect-to-demand ratio: is what you are doing effective enough given how demanding it is to achieve.
  • Waking up each day with a clear purpose, especially if that goal involves other people in a cohesive social setting, is so much easier and healthier than rolling out of bed without a thought as to what your day will be.
  • Recognize those relationships and activities that are significant, meaningful, and valuable in your life. Preserve, extend, and flourish.
  • So much of modern rudimental marching percussion can be broken down into two things: 1) Play and perfect lots of basic exercise patterns, and 2) Design and execute a creative and appropriate show.

And for a bit of humor, I originally began the draft for this post in mid-July, with a title of “Neuroplasticity and skill-based living.” The only writing I had in the body of the post was, “Practice happiness. Meditation and mental exercise. CrossFit Mindfulness?” Lots of Exuberant Animal and MovNat on my mind methinks.

As for other things I do, lots of exciting things coming up:

  • Michael McIntosh will be arranging for the George Mason indoor drumline. Mike taught me at the Bluecoats, and I credit him with initially inspiring me to seriously pursue a career in teaching others how to drum.
  • The Anatomy of Frank will reunite as a five-piece band once again in November! Kyle Woolard, the lead singer / guitarist, recently toured the entire country (including Canada and Alaska!), and upon his glorious return to Charlottesville, we have a series of shows lined up in VA, TN, NC, and north.
  • I have been teaching much more classes at CrossFit Charlottesville, the epicenter for “Evidence-Based Fitness” in C’ville. It is so inspiring to help people reach their movement, performance, and health goals on a daily basis.
  • For the past two years I have been putting off writing a drum method book about rudimental gridding, but this fall it will happen! Hold me accountable if you see me.

Thanks for reading! Drop by a CrossFit noon class, check out an Anatomy of Frank show, or just go to any Charlottesville coffee house before 5 pm, and I’d love to chat.