I forget where I first came across the concept (might have been via Pop Up Playground), but what’s key for me in the difference between free play and a game as such, is that if it’s playtime the rules can and often do change at any time, you are free to quit whenever you like, and the point of the activity is the activity itself. Play exists for the purpose of playing, and only for as long as the process itself is engaging.
At least, that’s my simplified definition for the purposes of my discussion, but this great article goes into more depth, describing play as “activity that is (1) self-chosen and self-directed; (2) intrinsically motivated; (3) guided by mental rules; (4) imaginative; and (5) conducted in an active, alert, but relatively non-stressed frame of mind.”
So what does this mean in an exercise or training-based context? Especially if you’re training alone?
We are used to the point of training being something other than the training itself. I’m not sold on this, mind you – I think it’s great to move for the sake of moving, to play for the sake of playing, to exercise for the sake of exercising. Much can be discovered and learned from this approach, there is freedom and joy to be gained, but sometimes – it’s hard to find a way in. It’s hard to change your perspective when you’re used to believing that the gym is the place to go to, primarily when you feel you need to be improved in some way.
And structure – without structure it is easy to flounder. So if we were to think – there’s an activity, there may be rules, but these rules may change at any time, and if the point of the activity is exercise – let’s say you like to run, or you want to get better at running, but you’re not sure how to go about it?
Once you have accepted that running can be fun, or that you want to be able to enjoy it, I think it is important not to approach it too robotically. I don’t mean to be judgmental, any individual may require more or less structure, but once you have identified the structure that serves you, you can play within that, you can make it flexible, fluid, as much or as little as you like, and give yourself a chance to be pleasantly surprised. But if you find yourself somehow horrified or distressed, remember to stop and go home. If it is no longer fun, playtime is over.
Knowing, when you step out your door to train that you will be spending time both running and walking, if you don’t want to be strict about your timing or mileage, you can try something like this:
Go for a walk.
Every time a yellow car passes you by, run.
Run either for a predetermined time or distance, ten seconds, 100 meters, or until the next street corner – or run for a completely intuitive period of time – or run until a red car passes you by.
Choose a colour that you think will be neither to rare nor too common. And then wait to be surprised and challenged.
The athletic advantage to this kind of approach is that your training will prepare you for the unexpected. And because the point is to play, and it’s not a game or a competition, if there’s no red car in sight you can always just stop.
Or to take another approach, you could go for a walk and decide to run up every hill you encounter. I don’t run down hills, but you can choose any approach you like.
If you like cross-training, every time you see a man with a beard you can stop and do five push-ups, and alternate that with a set of eight jump-squats. If you live in Melbourne, you’ll be doing a lot of them.
You could apply a similar approach to cycling, or even swimming. Swim in a relaxed manner, every time someone does a spectacular dive, or you hear an almighty splash, sprint for twenty strokes. Whatever you like; I’m not a swimmer.
People apply structure in a variety of ways. You’ll frequently see something like this – jump rope for one minute, for every time the rope stops, you do five push-ups. But this smacks of punishment to me – the play must be fun and serve your purpose, you should not – for my money – add additional work based on an error or failure. This is for a couple of reasons – if you do that, your punishment is to become more fit, which doesn’t make sense, and if you want to enjoy exercise, punishment only works if you’re masochistic enough to really sink your teeth into it. Some of us are. But masochism shouldn’t need to be a prerequisite for having satisfying training experiences at the gym, when you can use the concept of fun or satisfaction instead.
If you’re into weightlifting, as I am, you can use numbers to your advantage. Once you have a feeling for your capacity, you can play with them – pick something challenging and see how you go.
The other day, I was training bench press. I spontaneously set myself the task of – every set – adding ten kilos to the bar and reducing the repetitions by one. This meant I did the following:
One set at 45 kilos, 8 reps.
One set at 55 kilos, 7 reps.
One set at 65 kilos, 6 reps.
One set at 75 kilos, 5 reps.
Then I ran out of steam, changed my mind, added only five which took the bar up to 80 kilograms and did a few sets of three reps. So the rules changed as I went, and – I don’t know if it sounds excruciatingly boring to you – but I had fun. I stimulated my body in a different way, and I had a satisfying totally un-programmed bench pressing experience. My training might not be structured enough at this time to maximise my capacity for progress, but frankly I don’t care. Every workout feels somehow new and a bit different, and gives me new insights and ideas.
We have a way of being superstitious. I don’t know if there’s any reason to do sets of ten reps in particular, but we seem to like ten. You could do sets of nine. You can pick numbers that are meaningful to you, and challenge yourself with them.
Or you can play in other ways: every time you load a weight plate on or off a barbell, do an exercise with that plate. Maybe curls, or overhead triceps extensions, or round-the-worlds. Or you can do a farmer’s walk with them – just carry them in your fingertips down the other end of the gym and back. Or do a set of lunges, holding a plate above your head. This will challenge you more than you might think (as a side note: if I am shooting for a particular number of reps on my barbell lift, I will rarely shoot for any particular number of reps for the plate-work; instead I will simply do what feels right).
If you’re working legs today, you could try doing ten sets of legs, but repeating no exercise. This will challenge you to come up with inventive, creative ways to adjust existing exercises you already know. Maybe instead of just doing squats, you can try doing squats with a calf raise at the top – or even a calf raise when you’re in the bottom position. Probably don’t do that if you’ve got a barbell on your shoulders though – that doesn’t sound safe or enjoyable. And only if you have really stable knees. Insert disclaimer here!
The common way to make gym training playful and enjoyable is simply to compete against other people. You try to bench more than your bud, or whatever. That’s nothing new. But you don’t want to do that every day, it can get a bit fatiguing.
I used to see one trainer doing this all the time – the rowing machines were next to the treadmills. He’d have one client run on the treadmill, the other would row on the machine, and it was a race to see who could reach 500 meters first. Most often – maybe just coincidence with our clientele and their average level of fitness – most often it was pretty close. And it looked like fun.
You can bear simple principles in mind and then play with them. In broad terms, in a weightlifting context, you can push, pull, squat and twist. All exercises can be categorized in this way. If you incorporate different movements in equal amounts, you can play with that and know that you’re doing a relatively well-balanced workout. You might train push-ups, chin-ups or pull-downs, lunges and Russian twists. Or you might train dumbbell chest press with a twist, one arm rope pulls with a waist turn, and squats.
In this way, you might discover new things you can do, and you’re less likely to be floundering in a sea of “I can’t think of anything to do at the gym today”.
Or, if you’re trying to improve your chin-ups but you’re stuck – knowing that the lats, shoulders and biceps are important muscles for the skill that is the chin-up – you could go to the gym and pick a pile of exercises that train these muscle groups, and still be working towards your target, even if you don’t attempt anything that looks remotely like a chin-up. You have a structure or a target, and in that context, you play with whatever grabs your fancy.
A ‘cardio’ challenge I used to set myself was this: alternate between 400 meters on the rower and 200 jumps with a skipping rope for 5 sets. Do that as fast as possible. It made for a total of 2,000 meters and 1,000 jumps. And it was seriously hard work. Over time, you can measure your progress, if you’re into that sort of thing, but now that I read what I have just written, it doesn’t exactly sound like happy playtimesing.
A more common cardio theme I see is this: someone has allocated a half hour for training, and they’ll jump on whatever piece of cardio equipment they like during that time. This is good, it’s solid and useful, but you can expand on that, you can make it more specific, you can add layers or structure, or remove them too, and you can include strength and mobility elements to your session as well. You can try to find ways to work in a degree of unpredictability, or implement for yourself non-punishment based causes and effects. If this happens, then I do that, so-to-speak.
Structure is useful, and so is fluidity. These three points – whether definitive of the concept of play, or not – they’re thoroughly practical when it comes to gym training:
The point of the activity is the activity itself;
The rules can change at a whim;
You are free to quit whenever you want, or to put it another way, stop while it’s still fun.
Honestly, I don’t know if this approach will work for anyone other than me, but I do train like this – I set myself little achievable challenges that might not mean anything in a broader context or to anyone else, but I find it satisfying anyway. And in the end, the one thing I notice again and again, the only thing that matters when it comes to training for fitness – you only need to show up. It doesn’t matter what you do. Some days you stretch, some days you work, some days you play and experiment, and question the hell out of everything whenever you can. Over time, if you’re there you’ll develop at something. You’ll get good at something. You just show up at the gym, or you practice your sport, your discipline or hobby, and you make sure you respect yourself in the process.
And if you bring a playful mentality to your work, over a period of time you’re bound to discover something, and you’ll wind up fitter in the process, but if you enjoy the process you’ll find you don’t care so much about the destination anymore. And you’ll find you won’t resent so much, this aspect of self-care that we’re all told we need to be doing so much of. You’ll find you’re not frustrated that the future isn’t here already, that you haven’t already achieved what you wanted to achieve. Because the point is play, is self-discovery, and that can happen every day, in some new way, right now.
And for those days when it all just sucks – and as much as there are many valid arguments to bring yourself actively to the exercises you don’t like – after all it is just play. If it’s not fun, if it’s not satisfying in some way, you don’t need to do it. It’s all for you in the end, anyway; it’s all yours.
If you have any favoured approaches, or you’ve discovered you like to play at the gym in some way, with structure or freedom in any measure, please feel free to share your methods below.