People will sometimes excuse themselves, especially when they’re new to the gym. They may say they’re not strong, or that they’re not fit, but if they say they’re not well coordinated, usually they think this is an immutable fact, or if they say they’re not supple, again they often seem to feel like this is just the way it is – whereas with fitness and to a lesser degree with strength, there is an awareness that it is not a static state – it can, in fact be improved. Hence, coming to the gym in the first place.
My Dad used to think he was weak in the upper body. This may have been true, but he used to cycle almost 30 kilometres a day, five days per week, and he used to run. He never did a significant amount of upper body strength training, so for my money – his lower body was trained, but his upper body was not weak, it just wasn’t trained in any formalised sense.
I appear like this sort of person. The reality is quite different. I worked very hard, and as is often the case – hard work, after many years, no longer looks like work. Not that I have a chip on my shoulder, I should say – just that I understand what I have done, and it is also true that I did play to my strengths and natural talents.
And having said that, put me in a ball game and it all comes undone. I can pick up martial arts forms and techniques, and remember choreography well, because that’s what I’m practiced at, and like I always say, you become good at what you practice. So where possible, practice things that are good for you, rather than things that do you harm.
And I am almost completely un-practiced at ball games. Throw something at me, and who knows if I’ll catch it, or if I’ll instinctively try to block it. Default martial artist. And if I do try to catch it, I can’t guarantee any success.
So of course – if you look at two thirty year old people, or two fifty year-olds, and one has trained in formalised movement systems for 70 % of their life and the other hasn’t – the reality is not that one is coordinated and the other is not, actually one is practiced and the other is not.
I know that people still have strengths and weaknesses, and tendencies – some things they pick up and learn easily, and others that they do not. I too, am like this. Hence my difficulty with ball games. I could have made a good gymnast if not for my fear of accidental death. But for some reason, lifting a barbell that weighs as much as I do over my head – for some reason that does not frighten me.
The point is this: play to your strengths. If you are weak, and you respect your body and train well, you can become strong. If you are inflexible, you can become flexible. If you are uncoordinated you can become coordinated. These are all skills.
However, body-shape is not a skill. It’s hard to train for a shape. What is the movement pattern to practice?
I like to train for skills. It feels solid. Every single exercise you do – there’s either a reason to do it, or a reason not to do it. But I know, some people truly do have massive obstacles set up in their path. If one way truly is not walkable – often literally – what other paths are open to you? If you suffer from nerve dysfunction, you may remain uncoordinated in a certain context. This will make everything harder for you, it is clear, and I wish you the best.
You may be able to become strong, but not flexible. You may be able to become coordinated or practiced at certain movements, but not strong. You may be able to become dextrous, but not agile. There is a difference between fine motor skills and gross motor control. More possibility to exert strength exists in the latter, but the former requires less effort or ability to produce force. If you are not strong, you may yet move elegantly. And if you are strong, you need not concern yourself overly with technique.
It is hard to be honest with oneself. We are often too generous or too cruel, and struggle to perceive our situation clearly. When I encourage you to be honest with yourself, I do not mean that you should be cruel, nor that you should delude yourself in any way. The things that you struggle with, they are real, but we can still ask if they are actually innate. Can they be changed, and would you really want them to be? What would you have to sacrifice? These things, are they character traits? The result of illness or fatigue? Are they learned, or in some way unique to you? If you experience disability, in what ways can you work with your condition, rather than against it?
What can you work at? What can you not? And more importantly, what is worth your time?
I keep, again and again, coming back to The Serenity Prayer. There’s a reason Alcoholics Anonymous picked it up and ran with it: grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. So challenging, and so true.
I have coached many people, of varying degrees of able-bodiedness, who have not responded well to conventional methods. If attempting an exercise for 4 sets of 8 reps wipes you out and does not lead to an improved result, why train in accordance with conventional methods?
Actually – why should anyone train in a conventional way? Nobody is a conventional person.
It is true though, that you need to give some things time, and you need to invest in them properly if they’re going to work for you. But sooner or later, you will reach the point where you know whether these methods are useful to you or not, as long as you’re paying attention – as long as you can keep your wits about you. But most of the time, coaches and specialists start you off with conventional methods, and only really invest time and effort in your condition when the usual, standardised approach fails. Which means you might have gone over and over the conventional methods a dozen times, with a dozen different consultants, and you still might not have discovered anything that is actually useful. Standardisation is the enemy of character and so – for who will standardised systems really be the perfect fit?
Here, unfortunately, we start to reach the point where the internet – or my blogging at any rate – can’t really help. Not in any specific way.
I was reflecting the other day. Of all my clients, all I’ve ever trained – no two eat exactly alike. And I don’t think any two of them could eat alike, and function optimally. More fibre isn’t always right. Less sugar and less fat aren’t always good choices. Multivitamins are not always good choices. More protein is not always helpful.
And training? Exercise and human movement? It’s almost impossible to learn these things online. Or at least – online and alone. But trainers write programs, specific and detailed, very much so these days, and of course the more specific and detailed they become, the narrower is their applicability. But they are still marketed for everyone – for muscle gain, fat loss, men and women, old and young, beginners and advanced athletes. How can it possibly work like this? Why would a middle-aged woman and an elderly man be prescribed with the same fitness program? And why would they be expected to practice the same exercises in the same way? Who would do that, in real life?
And when the program inevitably fails, when a program is sold to an individual who never really should have been doing it in the first place – well if it doesn’t work for you it’s your own fault. Average Joe succeeded with this, therefore all humans can? It’s one of the big lies: if I can do it, anyone can. It’s too self-critical and self-deluded. It pretends that ‘the I’ is nobody special, that I possess no unique characteristics or strengths, and that I have achieved no remarkable thing.
I’m way off topic now. But it comes down to this: physical skills are not character traits. You shouldn’t need to change your personality if what you want is to feel good inside your own damn body. You shouldn’t need to become a whole different person if all you want is to improve your fitness in some way, your ability to move well without pain, without injury, without drama or trauma.
But also, you shouldn’t expect some random program to be the right thing for you, and if you buy a program, and you can’t do it – you shouldn’t feel like a failure just because you haven’t stumbled across something that’s well suited to you, that meets your unique needs.
But there should be processes out there somewhere that can help you. There are no miracle cures or quick fixes, and they might be hard to find, and maybe I’m idealizing like crazy – but there are a wide variety of methods that exist. No single one has been proven – to my knowledge – to be absolutely superior to the others. Instead – and this is certainly true of the martial arts – some systems are appropriate for some people, and many are not. Oftentimes, systems are not the way. Because then the dogma is the important part of the equation, not you, and you wake up one day and realise you’re living in service to this whole other thing – this thing that often takes more than it gives. I’ve been quoting Bruce Lee all over the place lately, but it resonates: make no-way your way, make no-system your system.
The focus should be on you, because when it comes to health and fitness, it really is all about you. It’s a hard balance to strike – you need to dedicate yourself to your practice if you’re ever going to learn proper skills, but it’s useless to keep banging away at something that’s never going to yield the results you want. You can’t just move freely all the time and develop in the ways you care to, but if you spend all your time dedicated to mastering technique, you’ll become mechanical and training will lose it’s enjoyment and flavour.
At least, in the end, there is this: all experiences are valid, and if you’re paying any attention, all experiences will contribute to the development of understanding and self-knowledge. So how can you get it wrong, when all things have value?
And now I want to paraphrase J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit: it’s a dangerous business, stepping out your front door. If you don’t keep your wits about you, you don’t know where you’ll end up!
They say life isn’t a rehearsal. But it’s not a performance either. I think though – even the most boring of lives is always a valuable adventure.