I've been doing a lot of reading and thinking about fitness and wanted to have a far-ranging discussion. Some of it as it may pertain to elite athletic performance, but mostly as it pertains to us.
None. I'm not a fitness or nutrition expert. This may be a good thing. The abysmal track record of many health experts, their professional associations and the governmental bodies tasked with improving fitness and the worship of useless credentialism in these industries may recommend a few non-experts with critical thinking skills. I know what I don't know and I change my mind when faced with new evidence. The aforementioned bad actors only begrudgingly change their recommendations after decades of scientific and experiential bludgeoning. And often, not even then.
I am not a great athlete. I've tried lots of sports and have proven resoundingly below average in some (tennis, golf, baseball), average at others (running) and above average (football, boxing, grappling) at several. I'm not sure the best athletes make the best teachers, coaches or investigators, anyway.
Investigating fitness seems to reward people who can think about thinking. Some of those people are wearing lab coats with impressive letters after their names. Some are fat powerlifters covered in tats wheezing like French Bulldogs with an 8th grade education. Some are little Bulgarian guys who have spent forty years teaching people to hoist twice their body weight over their heads.
I read as many perspectives as possible, test their assumptions, try to see connections between seemingly disparate ideas and then shamelessly steal and tweak methods from those smarter, more experienced and wiser.
It's a fair question. I've been fat and out of shape. I've been in really good shape. I've spent time in all of the phases in between. Being in shape is more fun. But we are are all on the same journey. What Tolkien called The Long Defeat. Modernity means we now outlive our evolutionary usefulness instead of dying from infection or cave bear attack. Our job is to wage the noble fight against the creeping inevitable because that's all there is. Until the Singularity. Then we can download our consciousness into an Apple Watch and our kids can carry us around like Superman's Dad in a Fortress of Solitude crystal.
I want to cover a lot over the next few weeks. The pros and cons of Crossfit. PEDs. How athletes should train. How our fragile egos and self-definitions prevent improvement. Persistent fitness mythology. The value and economy of HIIT & Tabata. Bro science. How the immutable laws of thermodynamics may have a more complex interplay with our bodies than just calories in/calories out. What supplements work. Why Olympic lifting is awesome but its skill requirements could make it challenging to incorporate. How the word functional has been stolen and rebranded by idiots. How the hell we're supposed to figure out what to eat with all of the competing information and diets out there. And whatever else you want to discuss.
On that journey and in our discussion, here are a few of my guiding principles...
Ruthlessly Examine Your Own Preconceptions/Eliminate Your Ego
I spent much of my life excusing myself from proper squats (proper means no Smith Machine and below parallel - I'm looking at you, readers) because I had bad knees and misinformed smart, educated people convinced me that it would be bad for me. This was my permanent doctor's note to do leg press, extensions and curls. The fact that squats are taxing and intimidating also played a subconscious role in my excuse-making.
I re-examined the evidence. I began squatting again despite my Runner's knee against doctor's orders. Guess what? My knee is more stable, not less. Apparently building supporting muscle, developing strength under a load and improving range of motion is helpful.
Enter ego. My initial squat mobility was poor. Tight hips. I couldn't even hang out down there comfortably without swaying like a wino. I practiced Paleo chair at the gym between sets or just around the house. I looked stupid. I body weight squatted, working up to 300 at a time doing sets of 50. I watched countless Youtube videos. I read Starting Strength again and pondered moment arms.
I got under the barbell using light weights that didn't sit well with my ego and my own self-definition as a reasonably strong male. I sucked it up, put on the plates that go dink instead of the plates that go THUD and did the work. I got stronger very quickly. Now I squat every two or three days. I'm better for doing so.
Ego and embarrassment is crippling to improvement. Men have way too much of it tied to whatever mode of exercise defines them. Women are far more trainable. Evaluate your weaknesses and ask what prevents you from working on them. Most of the reasons will be stupid and ego-based.
Imagine a new drug that reduces fatality by myocardial infarction in seriously ill heart patients by 37%. It's main competitor is nowhere near as effective. Unfortunately, the drug is later demonstrated to increase the incidence of fatal stroke in 1% in these sick patients. It's given to 6 million patients worldwide and a whopping 60,000 patients die from these strokes. Consumer advocates go nuts. Trial lawyers have a field day. The media clamors for the drug's removal from the market. Big Pharma is once again proven evil. This is a crisis, isn't it? No, it isn't. This is a great drug. The lead developer deserves the Nobel Prize and the pharma company deserves its billions. The net benefit of this drug is +2,140,000 lives. Much of our current thinking dwells too much on reductive hysteria around lesser risks at the expense of massive benefit. Vaccines, anyone? The mobilization of resources should be to expand the drug's distribution while seeking to mitigate the stroke problem, not boot it from the market.
This mindset is useful for fitness. The media tries to slip poisoned daggers through tiny chinks in the armor of any net good and we're left in a state of confusion as to what's really useful and healthy. Is milk healthy for us? I can make strong arguments that it is. I can marshal arguments that it's the worst thing ever. I honestly don't know anymore. You tell me.
What about: Creatine. Caffeine. Heavy squats below parallel. Eggs. My epidemiological perspective tells me that these are all demonstrable net positives, yet they are still somewhat controversial and have endured long periods of health expert exile either because of stupidity, needless reductivism, or risks presented without the contextual benefits.
Our bodies are ingenious complex systems with interconnected feedback loops and regulatory systems seeking homeostasis. Working it and evaluating it as a unit makes sense. So I'm not particularly interested in discussing the iso exercise that will blast your rear delts or the latest useless wonder supplement that worked in mice but is dosed 5X below its theoretical therapeutic window for humans at $69.99 a bottle. Most health scares come from this mindset. Journalists are too stupid or lazy to understand the study they're referencing to inform their click bait scare tactic headline and fitness science has a range of rigor that's shocking. Our public interpreter of the study is a proven incompetent and the researcher has a coin flip's chance of being useless. God help you when a celebrity trainer who passed a multiple choice test to get training certification gives you their spin on it via Twitter. This is a layering of bad upon bad. Any presentation of data without some discussion of larger benefits and costs or the actual measurable outcomes is useless. When possible, think macro, not micro. View from 10,000 feet, not with a magnifying glass.
An important aspect of the 80/20 rule. I'd contend that much of what we do seeking improvements, however we define it, isn't just neutral, it's often actively counterproductive. There is no enterprise where indiscriminate hard work and faddishness is punished more and smart economy better rewarded.
During the summer, a football athlete lifts four hours a day. Double sessions at 6am and 3pm, hitting every body part at least three times a week. Every last set to failure. Forty individual exercises using every piece of equipment in the gym. Maximum intensity. Cables, dumbbells, barbells, machines, standing on a BOSU ball with bands and chains draped all over his limbs. Six days a week. He takes fifteen different GNC supplements and enters his meals into a calorie counter so he doesn't go an ounce over what he burns. This guy is a machine! The coaches nod admiringly at his work ethic and hold him up as an exemplar. The payoff for his efforts is no improvement in applicable strength, a decrease in explosiveness, he's plagued with systemic inflammation that prevents him from doing positional skill work with good effort, a fatigued CNS. That shoulder tweak from July is a partial rotator cuff tear and he blows his hamstring on the second day of two-a-days.
His lazier teammate works out four times a week for a little over an hour doing a half dozen compound movement exercises: squat, deadlift, power clean, chin ups, farmer's carry, bench or standing press. Not much volume. Just heavy weights. No exercise more than twice a week. He's so lazy, he won't even battle for an extra two or three reps at the end of each set with a spotter. He takes an hour nap every day despite his ten hours a night of rest. He eats large amounts of whole foods and pops a multivitamin if he can remember. By August, he adds 150 pounds total to his major lifts and he's fresh as a daisy for two-a-days. With the time freed from the weight room, he worked on his conditioning, skills, feet and technique and actually got better at playing football.
The coaches shake their heads at Athlete #1's bad luck. And imagine the gains Athlete #2 would make if he had #1's work ethic! These coaches are not the exception in their thinking.
An already trim runner decides to lose weight to improve his times on the 6 mile route he runs every day to prepare for his 10K race. What better way to prepare for a race than to carry less body weight and run the exact distance of the upcoming race repeatedly? He avoids other forms of training so as to not impede his running. He eliminates dietary fat to drive his weight loss. His times improve for a week as his weight drops (a little water loss paired with a glycogen tap), but soon his body cannibalizes muscle to make up for his metabolic deficits. His runs feel joyless and his 10K is an unrewarding slog. His BMR resets lower with the muscle loss, testosterone plummets, he loses the ability to vary pace and sees his body fat % actually increase despite dropping 15 pounds. He's now skinnier, fatter, weaker and stuck. If he begins to eat more (slow carbs of course, fat is evil and protein is for muscle men), he'll gain more fat as his body assails his new BMR. He's at a metabolic dead end.
His friend eats plenty of fat and protein, runs varied distances at different paces - rarely even matching the actual race distance - mixes in 45 minutes of compound weight training 3 times a week (even if it means he can't run on those days - the horror!) and does Tabata hill sprints once per week. On race day he feels rested, strong and he runs the back half of the 10K a minute and a half faster than the first. He had no idea he could run 7 minute miles over an extended time period. Until he did. Guess he's just a gamer?
Training is as much what you don't do as what you do. Seek the useful 20% and dwell there as much as possible. Or cut out a lot of the 80% and let the 20% work unimpeded by your "assistance."
Words like core, strong, powerful, explosive, athletic are abused, ill-defined, misused and prone to misunderstanding. And God help us when we get into trigger words like Crossfit, functional, steroids and toxins. Most fitness camps are just talking past each other.
Simplicity is always preferable to complexity where simplicity suffices. Simple clarifies. Simple allows for mastery. Simple is easy to build on and link causality. Complexity is ego-gratifying, obscuring, trendy, mistakes activity for achievement, complex is....proprietary. You can make money off of complex. It can be branded and marketed. So complex proliferates.
The Efficiencies & Benefits of Strength.
Strength is the easiest athletic attribute to grow and the easiest to maintain. Reread that until it sinks in. It took me a few decades to understand that. This fact has significant implications for all of us - whether we want to look good on the beach, perform better athletically or simply want to preserve muscle mass, mobility and bone density as we get older. Conversely, aerobic conditioning begins to erode at the mitochondrial level in a couple of days without training. Flexibility diminishes in weeks. Skill can rust in days or weeks depending on your sport.
A 400 pound deadlift can be preserved with 40 minutes of work a month. There is no parallel to that in any other training context. Can a distance athlete maintain his or her gains with two 20 minute training sessions per month? Would a basketball player retain skill expertise shooting that often? This is useful, isn't it?
We've relabeled aspects of strength with words that we now associate with "athleticism." Which, we're told, is different from strength. Some will even contend that these expressions of athleticism are opposed to strength. "I don't want to lift and lose my athleticism." That could happen if you lift for pure hypertrophy and overtrain every muscle group individually doing a workout written by a HGH loaded fitness celebrity in his fitness revolution manual, but if you lift for strength - which means significant compound movements engaging the components that fuel athletic performance - you'll just get stronger. And probably more effective athletically.
Balance is an expression of strength. Proprioception improves with strength. Power and explosiveness as well. The only real part of the power math equation that we can train is strength. The rest is largely genetic and why it's chosen as an evaluative tool by the NFL, Eastern European olympic lifting coaches and NBA. If you're going to add inches to your standing vertical, it's going to be with weighted squats and plyometrics. Not shoes with funny inserts, biking and leg extensions.
Strength has been mischaracterized by a subset of the "functional" community so much that it now conjures the image of a muscle bound stiff doing iso curls struggling to tie his shoes. Barry Sanders was, by any definition, athletic. Balance, quickness, body control and explosiveness. Sanders was also really, really strong. Do you think of him that way? He was an early adopter of high school weight training in the early 1980s as a 5'2, 105 pound high school freshman and he could squat 550+ and power clean 365 by the time he was a 200 pound college junior. Yet, no one thinks of Barry Sanders as particularly strong. Or considers that his abilities were an expression of that strength.
Strength makes you better.
This realization should frame our thinking. Wherever and whenever possible, one should drive meaningful strength gains as economically as possible. When strength plateaus, assess whether the effort needed to drive further strength gains is worth the sacrifice of other training (playing your sport, skill development, conditioning, footwork, film room, catching balls, fielding, shooting, technique). Zero sum games and diminishing returns are harsh governors and we all obey their laws. So grow strength until it becomes inordinately difficult to do so. Then keep it. And go employ that new strength in your sport.
Somehow, serious athletes and laypeople alike manage to neglect meaningful strength training completely or they continue to do far too much of it with incremental benefit, not knowing when it's time to consolidate and seek gains elsewhere.
Those are some of the things that guide my thinking.
What's on your minds?