Last week we talked about having fitness-related goals that improve your life without taking it over. This week instead of discussing how to implement a (relatively) safe, effective, and enjoyable program that leads to said goals (as I initially planned), I ramble on about how gym culture is based on breaking down our body through busy work and how great things could be if we focused on seeking mastery through skill-based programming and joyful movement.
Arthur Jones gets a lot of shit, and some of it is deserved, but not all of it: he collected data with the purpose of making the most efficient and effective exercise program possible with the absolute least amount of training. He created the Nautilus line of fitness equipment, which, if you’ve ever stepped foot into a large commercial gym, you’ve seen or used. He was a proponent of H.I.T. (High Intensity Training), which is still a common practice for bodybuilders today. Despite how some feel about Jones’ influence on modern gym culture, he was a generalist – he is quoted as saying “specialization is for insects” and “a man should be able to a man should be able to put food on the table , build a house, tan a hide and deliver a baby." In his eyes, exercise programs should have general, transferable skills. We should use our training in the gym to improve what we do out in the world….wait….this all sounds familiar….Greg Glassman=Arthur Jones=Bob Hoffman=Bernarr MacFadden=Eugene Sandow….DID I JUST BLOW YOUR MIND?
It’s nothing uncommon to say that people need to move more. Business is business, and all of the names I mentioned were men who were in the business of fitness. Their goal was to make money by promoting fitness. It is a noble cause, but as a business person, your bottom line of profit margin. No-one stands to make a fortune repeating “run, lift, drink water, and sleep.” But by taking a new perspective, commodifying it, and selling it with a product line, you can make a crapload of money.
The point is this: there are many ways to get fit, and many systems to get there. I won’t tell you that everything works, but most things do (for a while, at least). So whatever your goal, approach, training system, philosophy, whatever – stick to it and you’ll get better. If you’re not making progress, you’re not sticking to the system, you’ve run it to its useful end, or it’s not right for you.
Things become problematic when we stop working towards a practical, quantifiable goal (be able to lift more, run faster, climb something, improved health, etc), and start working to work. I am a huge fan of movement for movement’s sake – we should be walking, running, jumping, and climbing our way through daily life as much as possible. There are huge psychological benefits to moving, both inside and outside the gym. But there should be a purpose to our movement in the gym, and that’s where skill training and goals come in.
It’s interesting: when I write about physical play or purposeful exercise, I unconsciously use the word “movement.” But when I talk about arbitrary, purposeless exercise, I default to the word “work.” And that’s what it is, really: work. Busy work. Chip Conrad has talked about this extensively, and I won’t belabor the point he has made many times, but it is relevant to our purpose: if you do an exercise just to do it, just to get tired, it’s busy work. If it leads to a larger purpose (skill or enjoyment), it’s productive. And don’t sit there and tell me you enjoy wallballs, that’s bullshit. Your body craves movement, and even arbitrary, repetitive exercises like wallballs act as a temporary fix. Imagine the joy and fulfillment you could find if you invested time in movements that actually led to increased ability….
So why is this desire to waste time in the gym so prevalent? Let me play amateur sociologist for a moment and suggest that most of modern life is a waste of time: so much of our day is spent doing busy work, distracting ourselves, and wasting minutes/hours/days of our lives pointlessly staring at screens large and small, filling out paperwork, making small talk, buying things, driving places, etc. For the record: this blog is different. It’s not a waste of time. KEEP READING AND BUYING MY PRODUCTS.
Why wouldn’t this culture of busy work cross over in to the gym? It adds up. Go-go-go out there, go-go-go in the gym. It’s difficult to turn off your mind and shift perspective. How many people do you see on their phones in the gym? I’m guilty of it. We live in a constant state of distraction. The only thing that pulls us out is something that is more pressing, more intense. We are attracted to exhaustion-creating workouts because they are like a drug – an ultimate distraction. You’re caught in the moment, unable to breathe, unable to think, unable to worry about anything else. People begin to expect that experience in the gym, and feel as though their program isn’t effective if it doesn’t create this desired result.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t work hard and get your heart rate up. You should. But you also shouldn’t be quivering on the floor in a pile of sweat after every workout. That’s not productive, that’s just tiring. But it’s pervasive – I’m not working hard if I don’t “feel the burn” or if I’m not “bacon sizzling” after a “WOD.” And trainers perpetuate it, because they don’t want to lose clients. I’ve done a lot of workshops at a lot of different gyms, and most people are very open to the idea of getting better, of better applying their time in the gym, yet there still seems to be so many more gyms programming brutal workout after brutal workout. A lot of it comes down to trainer fear: people are taught that their workout is supposed to look a certain way, and now they expect it. Trainers/coaches/WOD cheerleaders/ whatever you want to call them are afraid to disrupt this expectation. I've spent the past four-ish years infiltrating CrossFits and have found a willing audience. If we can transition from an exhaustion-based gym culture to a skill-based one, I think we can do some radical things. Powerlifting, Olympic lifting, parkour, martial arts, and even (in some capacity) bodybuilding gyms are proof of this.
Your programming should be a combination of some type of skill training, whether it be rehabilitative work, strength training, sport training – something that applies to a greater purpose. I always pick on the strength sports, but it could be argued that these sports also perpetuate gym obsession and have limited outside applicability. I think that is true only when your movement quality suffers due to a focus on improving your strength sport-related skills (ie, powerlifters who can’t lift their arms above their heads). Anyway, skill training is the first part. The second part is play: we should play and explore movement. Try new things. Remember, your skill training should be useful – can you climb something? Can you run there? Test your skills and enjoy yourself.
In the end, skill practice IS play. Practice is a luxury. We are lucky to have the time and energy in our days to focus on learning non-survival related skills. People devote insane amounts of time to learning soft touch skills like playing instruments and visual arts – why is it such a rare thing to commit time to physical skills? And furthermore, when did we become so lazy as a culture that we can’t even be bothered to care about getting better at anything? We should WANT to get better at skills in the gym. Why would you look at a pull-up and decide that instead of doing a transferable skill that could lead to doing truly awesome things, you’d rather take a shortcut that leads you to doing lots of sort-of pull-ups?
Find a skill. Get better at it. Find more skills. Get better at them. Value yourself. Value your abilities and nurture them.