The one-leg wall-sit glute-stretch. Training... or relaxing?
Training for fitness is thoroughly contrived. It's not a bad thing at all, but it's good to recognise. In all human activities, efficiency is key. In sports, hunting, farming, maintaining good posture, shopping for birthday presents, we want to be efficient with our energy expenditure – we want to find the very easiest way to do something so that we can a: do it again without fatigue, or b: put all our strength behind it so we get an extraordinary result. To put it another way, we want a lot of bang for our buck.
And when it comes to training for fitness, that's not too different – we want to gain strength or burn fat while doing as little actual work as possible, and it's important to realise that this is not actually laziness. It's something quite different. When we're sick, or depressed, or feel in any way unlike ourselves, we might naturally shy away from any unnecessary energy expenditure, because we need that energy desperately for healing, for convalescing, even if some sort of physical movement would actually be good for us. In these circumstances it's hard to tell what exercise – if any at all – we should be doing.
Naturally we want to conserve energy, irrespective of how robust we are feeling at any given time, so it's natural for us to shy away from training hard simply for the sake of training hard. We aren't lazy; we're naturally wired for efficiency. I'm not saying that to placate your ego or give you an 'easy out', I'm saying that because I believe it to be true. Why sprint to catch that tasty caribou when we can jog? Why try to catch it with our hands when we can throw that oh-so-efficient rock?
I think occasionally training at grunt-worthy intensity and frequently moving in a relaxed state, without tension, are both important aspects of experiencing your body in full.
Having said all that, clearly we’re well equipped to handle intense physical work when it's important. This is why you can fire yourself up if you need to – you can work yourself up to a really heavy lift, or an intense, all-out sprint, but you certainly don't need to smash it at every workout, and you don't need to hit that intensity on each exercise. If you have two or three intense lifts, per week, that is actually enough to make progress. Maybe one all-out lift and one all-out sprint. And I don't mean one all-out sprints session; I mean one all-out sprint.
If you’re already familiar with running and you’re confident with your technique, here’s something you can try. Start with some mobility work to warm up, and then a few short jogs and a few short runs to work up to an all-out sprint, for maybe ten seconds. Follow that with some more short, relaxed jogs to cool down, do some stretching and you're done. You should find you can progress pretty darn well on that. And if you really want to do an all-out sprint, you have to know how to be relaxed, free and fluid in your movements.
If you want to explore efficient movement patterns or freeing your body, or how you move naturally without preconception, you can! I think it's great! Unfortunately, we're often told that if we're not working hard, we're wasting our time, which is far from the truth. The 'go hard or go home' mentality would have us believe that there's nothing to be learned from relaxed, free movement where you're just exploring your capacity for motion, or just playing, or maybe investigating your physicality in great depth without tension. It's good to learn how to move without tension, because freedom of movement comes from relaxation, and even when you're training intensely, you're not trying to 'move with tension', you're still trying to get the job done with great efficiency. It's just that you've chosen a really hard job, one that requires intensity to complete, which is a different approach to simply 'training hard'. You can't 'train hard' at something that's easy, but you can take a relaxed approach to working at something that requires effort, intensity and dedication.
In martial arts, we want to be strong so that our application of technique has power, but we must also be relaxed and efficient so we don't fatigue. We need to move naturally, without inhibition, in a relaxed state with spontaneity and fluidity.
I really enjoy training hard, just as I enjoy being relaxed, and I love developing my strength and athleticism. One reason I like training hard so much is because it gives me a physical experience of overcoming obstacles. As I learn to overcome my physical obstacles I learn to overcome other obstacles in life. If I can cope with physical intensity, and know that I'm going to be okay – I can handle it alright – it helps me cope with psychological and emotional intensity too. I get stronger across the board.
I don't fear failure like I used to, because in training I seek it out. It's how I know I'm progressing. Seek out an exercise that you can’t do, and train it until you can. If you're training with intensity and progression in mind, a good guideline is to choose an exercise or a level of resistance that you can handle confidently for 4 to 8 repetitions. It should be challenging, but it should also feel achievable. As you develop, you can progress to something more difficult. I'm going to write about intensity more in the future, but for now, that's a good guideline.
In my experience, a sense of achievement starts to grow, and the negative stigma surrounding failure begins to erode. I'm no longer ashamed to think of myself as weak, because I see myself on a scale of progression and I have better perspective. I see that my strengths and weaknesses are relative, and we are all strong, and we're all weak, and so it's all okay. I'm working on becoming stronger, and I can see my weaknesses without judgement.