A statue of Bruce Lee
There seem to be all kinds of studies around, saying conflicting things. Or if not conflicting, just championing the benefits of different approaches to training. Sometimes vilifying others. Since it seems all forms of training involve benefits and risks, how do you determine what you want to train, how you want to exercise?
Enjoyment. That’s it.
Often when I’m training, I feel like I should be doing more ‘cardio’, or I should rest for more, or less time, in between sets, or I feel like I should do a certain number of sets or reps, or I should pair this exercise with that, and I wonder about maintaining a balanced physique, and developing my strength efficiently, and all that jazz.
There are two thousand-million opinions on what’s best, and I don’t have the time or inclination to listen to them all.
_ Some people say for the best strength development, you want to rest a full five minutes in between sets. That’s a lot of rest time.
Other people say for the metabolic benefit, you want to rest for 60 seconds or less, or you should put two different exercises together, and swap between the two, so you can eliminate your rest time even further – which is referred to as ‘supersets’. You might alternate between chin-ups and lunges, so theoretically your legs are resting when you’re doing your chins, and your back and arms are resting when you’re doing your lunges.
And cardio. Cardio. Some people say it’s the most important thing in the world, and others say it only increases inflammation and makes you weak.
All I know is, I’ve been focusing on developing my strength – if you’ve ever done a set of heavy squats, you know how cardiovascularly demanding they are – and I don’t ‘do cardio’ any more, and my cardiovascular fitness is better than fine, it’s excellent. I can run up stairs till the cows come home, even though I don’t practice stair climbing.
What I want from my training is broad applicability. If doing more biceps curls is only making you better at doing more biceps curls, it’s not what people these days like to call ‘functional training’. Likewise, if doing more crunches makes you better at crunches, but doesn’t cure your back pain (you know how everyone likes to say ‘strengthen your core’ these days, as if that’ll fix everything), anyway if those crunches aren’t fixing your back pain, why are you doing them?
If you can develop your awareness, pay attention to how your training makes you feel, that will always be your best guide. You are the best trainer you could ever have. And if whatever you’re doing makes you feel good, if it improves your mobility, if your strength and endurance (not cardiovascular fitness) are developing, if pain and discomfort in your body is decreasing, if all this is going on, if you can tell that your training has a broad application in other areas of your life, if you, personally, notice a direct and immediate benefit from training, you’re on the right track.
But we’ve been told we don’t know, we can’t know, we need to be told. We’re told that the reason to see a personal trainer is because they’ll make you train harder than you would if left to your own devices, but we aren’t questioning the choice any more – why the assumption? Will training harder get you better results? I don’t buy it. I want to train better, not harder. I want efficiency, intelligent program design, all those good things – things you need a real actual coach for.
If you’ve been spending most of the last year training your core, or stretching but not increasing your flexibility, or bustin’ your ass on metabolic strength-circuits, but you aren’t actually getting more mobile, strong or flexible – what’s the point?
Training right, surely that’s best? But finding a trainer who gives a shit about progression rather than just working hard and paying penance at the fitness altar, who cares about training right without overtraining, who respects your limits as you respect your limits, a knowledgeable individual who respects you – that isn’t easy.
Exercise isn’t going to be ‘enjoyable’ like watching a movie with a packet of chips is, but it should be satisfying. It should be rewarding. Ideally, you leave the gym feeling better than when you went in. If you leave feeling worse, you’re probably trying to cram too much in. I don’t care how un-fit you think you are, if your training makes you feel worse, you’re doing too much of the wrong things.
There’s not much I can say, here and now, to defuse the ‘harder is better’ mentality that’s pushed on us by nearly everyone in the fitness world. But it just doesn’t work like that. Hard is good, to a point, but soft is also good. If you want to get stronger or more athletic, you have to invest in relaxation as well as strength development. If you want to move fluidly, with grace and efficiency, you need to eliminate tension, not add tension.
This will, sooner or later, lead me into a whole other post on posture. The whole ‘strengthen weak muscles’ thing looks good on paper, but you can’t fix a problem with too much tension by adding more tension.
But everyone wants to be thin and/or muscular, and it always comes back to the calories, so we just focus on more tension, more work, to burn more calories, or stimulate a greater growth response, and it’s so damn short-sighted. The reason you look the way you look isn’t because of last night’s training program. It’s because of time spent on the planet, hormones, genes, training and food, and a billion things that are beyond your control. Going low-carb for a week, to be three pounds lighter next weekend, I’m sorry to say – that’s only going to fuck you up.
And every time you tell a calorie Nazi that it’s not about the calories, they come back with the same tired answer: it’s just calories in vs. calories out, as if that wasn’t the argument we already broke down. As if we don’t want to admit the truth, as if it really was that simple, as if we hadn’t really tried it, as if – because we don’t have the body we want, that means we’re liars.
But if it really was that simple, there wouldn’t be a problem. If it could be controlled, there wouldn’t be a problem.
I don’t know how many times people on a calorie-restricted diet need to continue to gain weight before the dominant strain of fitness assholes realise it simply isn’t that simple.
So what advice should you follow? Who cares? Do what you like. An obsession with thinness will inhibit your ability to make intuitive choices about exercise. Paying attention only to athletic development will also interfere with your intuition, your feeling for what would be right for you, here and now, or in the future. It is your choice, and your choice only.
We don’t need to ‘control’ our training, we need to know how to respond to the way we feel, to our energy levels, we need to learn about generating enthusiasm, not from a place of body-hatred, but from a place of love and satisfaction. I approach my lifts with enthusiasm, but it’s hard to be enthusiastic when you’re motivated by not liking yourself. It’s hard to be enthusiastic when you’re not working on something specific, when you measure success and failure by you, rather than by the task at hand. We don’t need to bust it every time, it is okay to use your own body as your compass. It’s better than okay. You just need to bring yourself to the task at hand with awareness. With curiosity. See what’s there, what can you discover?
You read something interesting, something that inspired your curiosity? Give it a bash. Work within your limits, don’t worry about resting times, hitting the right numbers or weights, do what feels right for you. Learn how hard you want to work, if you’re working too much, stop. If you want to do more, then you can do more. Stop when it’s still fun, before you burn yourself out.
Injuries happen when ego or sloppiness get in the way – don’t overreach, but do enough to challenge yourself. In a satisfying way, one that makes you feel good, not bad. Rest enough. Eat enough. Take it easy on your path to supreme awesome badassery. Be gentle to get strong.
The thing is, you do need to learn something. When you don’t know where to start, you do need a starting point. Bruce Lee was all about natural, intuitive movement, without form, without structure, and lately I think I’ve been able to see what he was getting at. But the thing is – how do you teach someone to move in a way that is natural and fluid – for them? How do you teach someone to move without structure, with pure efficiency, with pure expression of the human spirit? How do you do that without contrivance, technique, mimicry?
To run is a physical expression of freedom. To dance expresses joy and sorrow, and all the range of the human spirit. Developing these skills requires technique, and freedom from technique. I don’t know. I think a lot comes down to awareness, to being open, to trusting your own body, your own good opinion.
I had a tai chi teacher once, I asked him where my hand should be – beside my hip or my thigh? He said you want to imagine you’re pressing a piece of wood into the water. That will put you in the right position, by focusing on the feeling.
That was the first time I remember making a specific conscious shift in perspective – I was used to paying attention to the way something should look and trying to replicate that, but when I started to develop a real attention to detail from within, when I started to base my practice on the way I felt, on relaxation, awareness, and having a good support structure internally – when I stopped caring about how it looked, whether my knee was bent at the correct angle or whatever – that’s what made my tai chi come alive. I started to feel a sense of applying power from within, I started to become aware of my structure, and it started to become my tai chi.
They say that when you’re practicing tai chi absolutely perfectly, it’ll still look different from everyone else’s tai chi.
It’s the same with the bench press. Where do you feel the weight? How do you support yourself under the bar? How do you lock your shoulder blades down, how do you provide the right kind of support, with the right kind of tension, for your body, to enable you to complete the lift? How much tension supports the lift, enables you to lift more, and how much gets in the way? How much keeps you safe, and how much will put you at risk?
If you’re training and your joints are hurting – something’s wrong. It doesn’t matter if it’s heavy lifting, running, stretching or yoga.
Pain does not equal gain.
Read that a few times, give it a chance to sink in. We need more ammunition against the standard, straight down the line body-hating fitness propaganda that will only burn you out in a naive attempt to eradicate all fat from the face of the planet. It’s satisfaction that equals gain, that equals progress, that leads to a longevity of training and an enthusiasm for (and enjoyment of) exercise.
When I feel best about my training, it’s when I’m calling the shots. I’ve spent a lot of time in classes, with coaches, but nobody is going to ‘get’ you, like you do. Nobody else is going to find the same things important. When I rest as long as is right for me, on the day, I get the best results. When I work as hard, or as easy, as is right for me, I feel good about myself, because making your own decisions builds character. When I stop a workout after 20 minutes, because I’m not in the right head-space, this reaffirms that I am the one in charge, and I am serving my own best interests. It reaffirms that I am taking care of myself, not in some arbitrary sense of the word, but in an immediately practical one. Just because I’m at the gym, it doesn’t mean I’ve wasted my time if I walk out after five minutes – choosing to do what is right, listening to your intuition, is never a mistake. I don’t push through for the sake of pushing through, I train hard when I want to train hard, I take it easy when I want to take it easy, and I never watch the clock when I train. All athletic pursuits are about a task or a skill. Even endurance events are about covering distance – time spent in the gym is irrelevant. In short, I feel the best sense of satisfaction when I train on my own terms.
And anyone who tells you that seeking out your own satisfaction is not what will serve you for the long term – Jeez. Think about that one for a bit. What are you sacrificing when you do what you’re told?