Training is about development. It’s not about simulating the experience of competition, it’s not about testing, it’s not about being the best around, nothin’s ever gonna keep you down – nor is it about rehab, consistency, or even the acquisition of skills. It may include many of these things, but it is limited to none of them. To take a broad view, if you’re not progressing, your training is not serving you.
Of course, if you read my last post, and you really are simply into having fun, improving your health, and training intuitively, what follows may be kind of irrelevant. But if you are looking to progress athletically, read on, dear reader...
It’s a funny thing – when we think of training in terms of education or occupationally specific knowledge and skills, we think of an end result where we have learned something – where we possess more skills and knowledge, and the ability to apply these in a practical context.
_ But training at the gym? Forget about it. It’s all about calories and minutes spent on a cardio machine. Why? Our progress is only measured by the size of our waist? What about knowledge and the application of skills and development? What happened to them?
What about breaking it down and working out what you, specifically, need to do in order to develop in the ways in which you want to develop? We, the gym-going public, all seem to want – on some level – to be thinner or more muscular, or whatever, and so we lose sight of the purpose of training. We lose sight of development in any meaningful sense. So says I!
Physiologically – why would the purpose of exercise be to make us thinner? How does that make sense? To take a very rudimentary evolution-based (and probably somewhat naive) example – if chasing down an antelope, so that you could eat it later – if that activity of running and hunting – if that resulted in a significant or even insignificant loss of mass, we would die out pretty quickly. It’s not logical. No wonder we don’t progress towards thinner bodies in the way we want.
So what is the purpose of exercise? Who the hell knows? I guess it comes down to agenda. I can’t really speak to yours, but I can speak to mine.
Things I have discovered, working in fitness, are plentiful! If someone has had no real experience of development in their life, there’s almost no way of describing how awesome it is to actually build strength. Not muscle, strength. But if you’ve ever had some sort of dysfunction, and you’ve overcome it, few words are needed. Maybe I will become better at communicating this in future, but the thing is, you can’t make anyone else care about what you care about. And that’s okay. Train for your development, in a way that is satisfying. Why train in any other fashion?
When I started martial arts, the emphasis was mostly on developing skills and coordination, and so we neglected the acquisition of basic strength, power and endurance. Now I see people training endurance till the cows come home, but I see them neglecting the development of strength, skills and movement efficiency. I see people jumping, but not training their ability to jump. And I see people skipping, but few people working on becoming better at skipping.
For athletic development, ones training must include so much! I’ve seen so many people try to nail a technique again and again, only to fail, because they simply don’t realise that they aren’t yet strong enough to grasp it, or their mobility is inadequate, or maybe it’s a subtlety of body-awareness, or maybe they simply don’t realise (because few are truthful about this) just how damn long it takes to actually progress your athletic capacity.
In martial arts, we used to try to punch harder simply by trying to punch harder. We used to try to kick higher simply by raising the kicking target. But neither of these methods actually help you to progress very far. You may test the height of your kick by trying to reach a target, but to develop your kick? That’s something else. Coordination drills will be required. You will need to address flexibility and mobility of the hips and legs, of the trunk, balance and stability in general. You’ll need to strengthen and elongate. In my experience, one cannot achieve much development simply by trying to ‘do it better’, but if you break it down into workable components, then you have something you can really sink your teeth into.
If you’re physically incapable of performing a particular movement, strength of will, discipline and endless repetitions aren’t going to change that. If you can dig a little deeper, investigate your structure and mobility (mobility is where strength and range of motion meet), that will give you the best chance of discovering your capacity, learning about your body, and developing some sort of actual plan for progression. You’ll start to get a sense of what’s actually achievable, and as you progress, step by step, you’ll experience in a physical way what it means for that which was once impossible to become possible. And I simply cannot begin to describe how meaningful that is. It changes how you think about reality. You’ll start to develop a sense for what is impossible and impractical, and for what you cannot yet do, but you can realistically and specifically work towards.
Because you’re developing self-knowledge, hopefully without self-judgement. You’re developing the skill of applying understanding and perspective to actions and training, you’re building patience for processes, but you’re not pandering to restrictive or dogmatic systems. You’ll discover that you are capable of more than you ever thought, and you’ll also discover what your limits really are. They’re real, but you’ll find they don’t lie where you thought they did. They’re all over the damn place!
It’s like that with chin-ups. I can’t tell you how often I see people just trying to muscle out a chin-up, when it’s simply too far beyond them. What usually happens is frustration, fatigue or injury, and zero progression. But if you can put your ego to the side, if you can invest in a process, give yourself three to nine months (and probably a year before any feeling of comfort or proficiency begins to develop), you can train the action in manageable steps. Use some assistance, work on range of motion exercises, elbow flexion, arm (shoulder) adduction and flexion, what-have-you.
A chin-up is a test of strength. It’s to test if you can pull your own body up to a bar. It’s not a training method. It tests whether or not you’re strong (in a relative sense), but simply trying to muscle something through will not make you stronger. Go back to the gym, train and develop, and then in a few months time, test again. When you’re strong enough to do five or six clean repetitions, then you’re strong enough (or it’s a manageable enough exercise – appropriate for you) that it can serve your development.
It’s like that with push-ups too. And squats. When you’re focused on progression, you move from exercise that serves your development to exercise that serves your development. But who cares how much of a thing you can do? They're all just steps along a path, and there will always be easier and harder challenges.
The best bit ever? With perspective, judgement disappears. When you’ve been through this process for long enough, you become aware of the continuum, the feeling of absolutes recedes, and you see testing and training methods for what they are – tools for progression and development, not these vague tasks that measure your worth. Can’t do a chin-up? Feel like you’re not a real man? Think being able to do twenty in a row will change that? What foundation are you building your self-esteem upon?
Or, perhaps more to the point, what foundation am I building my sense of self-esteem upon? Nothing like that, not any more.
I was talking to my brother, very briefly, about the shoulder press. Simplest thing – you take a weight, and press it from your shoulder, all the way overhead until your arm locks out straight. What I neglected to share, but later realised, is that it’s only now, after I don’t know – maybe three to six years of training this particular movement – that I’ve started to develop a feeling of correct coordination for me, for strength development and the health and safety of my joints. What do I mean by now? I mean this month. I feel like I finally ‘get’ the coordination of the shoulder press, after years of training.
_ Recent shoulder press training: note the elbow starts tucked in, the forearm stays vertical, and the hand turns from a supinated to pronated position, but through a range of motion that is comfortable for me - not a full 180 degrees. When I lower the weight, I may 'catch' it with a subtle knee bend.
_ Maybe that’s why I would always shy away from it a little, because it’s actually a bit odd. Maybe that’s why you see people doing bench press and pull-downs all over the place, but you see very, very few people pressing a significant amount of weight above their heads. It’s a pretty weird move, really. The biomechanics of it make sense, and it certainly looks simple, but it’s not an intuitive or comfortable way for most of us to move.
Try this, if you like - lay down on your back, with your arms out to the side, palms facing the ceiling. Rotate through the shoulders, try to keep the shoulder blades, elbows and wrists in contact with the floor and slide your arms as far as you can into a handstand or shoulder press position. For most of us, this is more than a little awkward. See how far you can go, and how you feel - where is there resistance? Imbalance? How can you free yourself to move?
So how do you train, for development? Don’t simply work hard for the sake of working hard – everyone can work hard, it’s not as rare as people seem to believe, but how many people make meaningful leaps of progress? How many people do you see doubling their maximum chin-ups over the course of a year or two? How many people do you see whittling more than a couple of minutes off a five km run? How many people do you see running for distance, who are also fast?
Work hard at that which requires hard work. Working hard at efficient movement doesn’t make sense to me. Working hard doesn’t relate to understanding leverage, momentum, or increasing one’s capacity to recover.
I made a strange realisation two days ago. I hopped onto the rowing machine, and spontaneously decided to participate in a contest – to see how far you can row in three minutes. I did pretty well, but I needed to rest for like fifteen minutes afterwards. The realisation is this: my capacity to work hard far exceeds my fitness and ability to recover.
I covered 829 meters. Who’s fitter – the person who can cover 829 meters who was working at 95% of their (perceived) capacity, and who needs fifteen minutes to recover – or the person who can cover 780 meters working at 85% of their (perceived) capacity, who only needs seven minutes to recover? And, of course, who gives a toss?
Your sport – if you play one – what’s important to you? The capacity to hurl a shot-put a long way, or the capacity to repeat an intense activity such as kicking a foot ball, with unpredictable periods of time in between efforts? The capacity to run ten kilometres in a good time, or the capacity to sprint multiple times in a 45 minute period, without wearing yourself out?
That’s what gets me about cardio intervals, when people talk about the best work-to-rest ratio. After your sprint, do you rest fifteen seconds? Thirty? When you’re playing your sport, you aren’t going to get consistent or predictable rest periods. You don’t know when you’re going to have to give it your all - again.
Exercise and training, as it relates to competitive performance – how do you train the ability to perform well, under pressure, at intensity, knowing your sport is difficult to prepare for - how do you do that without burning out? Without depleting your adrenal glands?
Tennis and boxing and dance and rugby and so many other sports are incredibly demanding, not because they’re either an endurance or a maximal-effort sport, but because they’re both. They demand that you commit fully to a single high-intensity action, and that you do so potentially for hours on end, with few and inadequate pre-determined rests, and any others that you can sneak in depending on the variables of the day and who you’re competing against.
So it turns out, unsurprisingly, that I have no answers, and only questions. But I hope, that by asking questions, you might be able to find answers. Is this method helping? Yes? Why? No? Why? What needs to change?
Considering that my capacity for hard work exceeds my ability to recover, I think I need to reduce my intensity, and increase the workload – and this should help. If I don’t, I’ll just find myself overtraining (again). Then, as my ability to repeat work in a given period of time increases, I can try cycling in more intensity, and see how it goes. This approach has been helpful when it comes to chin-ups. Less repetitions in a single set, but more total chin-ups in my training session. Less direct arm work over all, but more frequent chin-up sessions. I appear to be progressing.
Or maybe I can fuck it all, and just do whatever I want. Which is the more likely option. Or is it? What do I want to be doing? Where are the gaps? What’s actually holding me back? How can I address my weaknesses while playing to my strengths? While keeping it all fun and enjoyable?
Personally, I find committing to a process and seeing how it goes thoroughly rewarding... If it works. And if it doesn’t, it’s educational. So there’s nothing at all to lose, as long as I’m committing to a process on my terms, not just doing what I’m told. That won’t end well, I’m too rebellious – I will give up, and feel bad about myself, as if I don’t have what it takes to stick it out, and only if I remind myself, will I remember that the reason I stopped is only because I don’t like being told what to do. It’s always a bit artificial. Contrived, or maybe inappropriate. It’s like with the shoulder press – the way other people do it doesn’t quite work for me, so what ends up happening is that I simply don’t do it, and then I wonder why I’m unable to commit. Hmm.
But when I investigate, when I discover? Then I’m free to engage. And it’s fun.
One last thing, while posting a long post, on self-knowledge and awareness (there’ll be more to come on this topic - there always is). Training, if you let it, will teach you about yourself – it will teach you how you perform under pressure, whether you train truly, whether you can develop insight and attention, or whether you don’t. But the thing is – if you judge yourself, it’ll only lead to burning out. If you believe that you should, for some vague reason because you think it’s better – if you think you should push your boundaries, just because it’s what you’ve been taught – where does that actually get you? That’s been a big learning for me lately. Where does it get me, if I’m just pushing failure all the time, training intensely, striving against adversity? It actually wears me down. But if I train to success, not to failure – if I train for development, not for depletion – there’s actually a future in that. And it’s one that won’t consume me.
It serves me, I don’t serve it.