Keeping up a movement practice is no easy thing during the holiday season. It's almost as challenging as working on your squat against context of chair livin'. So, this December, we're doing something about both: Announcing Gymnasia's 2017 Holiday Squat Challenge!
I was an art therapist in my life before G. I was the director of a day program for adults with developmental disabilities, as well as visual and hearing impairment. Although program management was not my cup of tea, I missed the people that I worked with and ...
Bracing is strength and a skill. It might well be the fundamental strengthskill — no movement can happen without it. Think of Bracing as the ability to knit the body together in stillness (static) or movement (dynamic). Functionally, to feel strength extend between segments of the body and from the center outward. The more you build and become aware of this, the more you will feel your center as the nexus of movement.
It’s not about squeezing your abs and glutes all day. Constant tension inhibits good movement. Rather, learn to know when to contract and when to relax, and how to feel that across many contexts, and how to draw from and connect with all contact points (e.g., feet on the floor, hand on a handle or bar). Putting strength into useful patterns when it’s needed — that’s where mastery is.
Many Brace exercises are what might be categorized as “core” work. This is true, but bracing happens throughout the body. You’ll see us use a lot of variants of hollowbody (torso and hip flexion), skydiver (torso and hip extension), positions of side flexion, Supports and Supends variants, and a lot of neutral posture braces (e.g., static / slow squats and single leg work). And when you throw KBs or MBs around, there’s oodles of bracing through different parts of the movements.
Bracing will make you sore in all those “didn’t know you had ‘em” nooks and crannies. What’s better: it will give you more strength and awareness to move easier (yourself and things), posture up, and align more naturally through the many odd angles encountered in an experience-led life.
The Hinge describes the body’s most central, powerful, and (arguably) important movement pattern: hip and leg flexion and extension.
The goal with Swings is to learn how to load and unload the hips like powerful springs (primarily butt and hammies), and how to align and brace the rest of the body around this nexus of power.
The Swing is a singular means of mastering how to move from the center outward. With the KB discipline, lifting and lowering becomes accelerating and decelerating or: throwing and catching. This means not just strength, but power. This is why some people refer to throwing KBs rather than just lifting them.
Most bodies–even some highly capable ones–move primarily from the limbs, the core /center is an afterthought — like something a fitness instructor throws in at the end of a workout. But once you learn to direct power from your center, your limbs will become conduits of effortless awesome, a posterior “wave” of power. What’s more, because you accelerate and decelerate the weight at speed, effectively throwing and catching in every rep, you build ninja dexterity and therapeutic armor to boot.
Swings can also be used as a soreness flush or for building Endurance (this author has swung a 16kg for over two hours). The Swing will build Stamina, Power and Strength.
We are of the growing camp that believes the KB Swing is not just the king of hinges, but the King of all exercises. It’s the answer to the “one exercise” question. The value of mastering this movement is hard to overstate. No other exercise can do so much, simultaneously.
- Bang-for-buck: Improves strength, power, and stamina. At once. Burns more calories than just about anything else you can do including cross-country skiing uphill according to one study. Plus, the caloric expenditure continues long after the session is over (some studies show up to 3 days).
- Transformation: There are countless stories of folks making amazing body transformations just by swinging and it’s hard to imagine a better thing for lean muscle and joint healthy cardio
- Ability: They help you run faster, jump higher, and lift heavier things easier.
- Movement: They teach you how to perform the body’s most powerful, fundamental, and under-practiced movement pattern
- Therapy: Active eccentric contraction through deceleration though this Pattern programs proper posture and alignment, fixes broken backs (including the author’s), wipes out future back injuries (12 years of injury-free ninja go-time!).
- A cure all: If you could take a single pill to combat Modern Body Syndrome, it would have a handle and you would swing it
- Mastery: the more you swing, the more you learn about your body, movement, and yourself. It can be a fury of power and strength; it can be a quiet and therapeutic meditation; it can be fun and playful.
All the dots connect. And they draw a KB. Just waiting for you to swing it.
Squatting is so important for health, ability, and ass-tetics at this point it feels silly to even have to still say it. It’s in every exercise and movement tradition and part of every day of life (sit down on anything lately?).
The full pattern is where the goodness is. It’s a critical measurement of and builder of lower body range and strength. But squatting affects the entire body: legs, hips, core, and upper body, especially when performed under an additional load. Increasing your squatting depth and strength will increase your movement ability in every other context. The numbers are clear on this: people who can squat with weight through a full range of movement perform better and have fewer injuries than those who can’t.
At a training with the family lineage holder of the Chen Tai Chi style (the family that invented tai chi no less), the master spoke little English. But after a joint-focused warm up, he said “Work legs first” and then dropped into a squat. Sounds a lot like every modern Strength & Conditioning guru out there, doesn’t it?
There are many variations on squats (front loaded, back loaded, single leg, lunge, RLESS, etc.) and they all provide value. Our anchor, however, is the Front Squat, with the load in the front of the torso. It works posture, lower body range, lower body strength, core/torso strength, arm strength, and mental focus and fortitude. It’s also a common means of picking up and carrying a load. You can progress it across the entire range of ability from therapeutic to aesthetic and athletic.
This is an Everybody Wins exercise! Whether you have never squatted before (gasp!), are a competition powerlifter (you go girl!), or a yogi (you om boy!), or just want to finally do a fitness thing that actually does something, practicing a front squat will make you better at your everything.
Many see jumping as a thing for young bodies and athletes, not a therapeutic or long-road oriented practice. But that’s exactly what jumping is. A spring in your step means every step will land softer, and that you’ll have a lot more steps in the bank. A pained shuffle doesn’t lead anywhere good, unless it’s to our doors.
Science is getting ever clearer about what builds bone strength. Nutrition helps of course, but is not the final answer (of course). Exercise is the thing, but as always, not just anything will do. Some research suggests that over-specialization in sports like swimming and cycling can develop more brittle bones than those of the general population. Then other forms of exercise can be too harsh, like pounding out runs over the years while the body’s shock-absorbing strength dwindles. These kinds of findings have long made sense to thinking coaches, who are everyday seeing and tweaking from the front lines of fitness. We’ve coached many long-time runners, cyclists, and swimmers on the verge of giving up their outlets to actually feel and perform better in their endurance work (and actual life to boot). Patterns like jumping are a big part of this. We have a rule of thumb: if you can’t jump, don’t run.
A growing body of research points to jumping as being a unique balance of both gravitational deceleration and muscular acceleration — affecting not just muscle and tissue, but structural strength. That is, jumping grows stronger bones. No other movement pattern seems to provide this perfect balance.
Our anchor is a KB Jump. It’s actually the movement that many people use to swing a KB, but is in fact what KB lifters call “squatting the swing” (i.e., deep knee flexion and bell swinging more up and down, beneath the body). While we don’t teach it for swinging, we love it for the jump pattern that it better practices. And the KB overload allows for plenty of incremental progression. Plus, unlike a box jump, it practices both sides of the jump (up= athletic value, down=therapeutic value) and makes for ready down-scaling for bodies who aren’t yet ready to jump. Wrap it all up with the beautiful DOMS the first session of a cycle give you, there’s much to love
Lastly, a pair of lean, muscular jumpers’ legs are the perfect picture of both aesthetic form and athletic capacity. As always, we want to see all the dots connect: from therapeutic to aesthetic to athletic. Bottom line: everyone should jump, and at G every one does!
Carries are among the most unassuming tools in the strength toolbox. But the capacity to move different loads around is one of the most useful expressions of ability. Kids, pets, suitcases, buckets, storage bins, briefcases, and shopping bags, furniture, shovelfuls, yard bags, trash cans, the list goes on. Picking up, holding and moving a load is something we do nearly everyday of our life. Yes, the virtues of standing in place and picking things up and putting them down are many. They are the underpinnings of strength work. But in life, you usually pick things up to move them around.
Carries stimulate every inch of the body. They demand quality of alignment and structure. Good carry patterns are among of the best natural posture strengtheners (along with front squats and KB swings). We mix in overhead carries, body carries (think over the shoulder), neutral arm carries (think bucket), bent arm carries (think forklift), and others.
Our focus exercise for carry patterns is the Get Up. Often called the Turkish Get Up, we remove the Turkish. There are many variations of getting up with or without a weight, most of which don’t hail from Turkey. But more importantly, why the Get Up?
- It’s a carry, a push, a lunge, a squat, a bridge, a support, a brace, and odd angle lift, a sit up, and a ground transition. It’s a whole mess of good movement wrapped up into a glorious exercise.
- It teaches you to brace your torso through in flexion, extension, & rotation.
- It passes through all 3 planes of movement: sagittal, frontal, and transverse.
- It’s a corrective tool and an ability building one.
- The ability to smoothly get down to and up from the ground is one of the most significant patterns for life. The science is clear: those who can get up live longer than those who can’t. The real world experience is clear, too: those who can’t are also more miserable in all movement.
- It’s a core strength exercise in the first degree: it bridges the entire body between, feet to fingers.
- It’s a perfect blend of strength and movement. It’s yoga or dance with a weight, a demonstration that balances supreme strength and movement mastery.
Unlike the performance videos of people carrying people and extreme weights, the get up is more of a inner strength practice than an all out, 1 rep max to shoulder failure. We also perform them in an unusual way: starting from a stand. We like that someone can’t just meatball up a too heavy weight, but rather must control it all the way down first. It then gives it gives them a safer place to bail at the halfway point. A Get Up is a high complexity lift and we like to keep the focus there, asking movers to think more about the process than the load. Lastly, it puts the mover in more time under tension for better inner strength work. From feet to fingers, it’s core to the core!
The Big Ideas:
- Track numbers that matter over time: Strength & Power
- Fitness is defined as Strength & Movement
- Strength is what you can do; its qualities are outputs
- Movement is how well you can apply your strengths; its qualities are inputs
- Strength is Math, Movement is Mastery
- Strength and Power takes time and consistency to build, but their effects last longer and affect your fitness abilities broadly and deeply. They tend to be long-term fitness qualities
- Cardio is not a physical ability, it’s your body’s response to exertion
- Cardio is better understood through its two types of strength:
- Stamina is high intensity output over time
- Endurance is low intensity output over time
- Stamina and endurance gains are quickly improved and quickly lost. They tend to be short-term fitness qualities
- Don’t judge yourself harshly if you lose Stamina or Endurance–if you work on your Strength, Power and Movement qualities, you will be more fit day-to-day, week-to-week, and year-over-year.
There is only way to deepen your fitness: track most important quantities of it over time.
But don’t just tracking anything, track what matters. Consistently. Over time. At G, we just launched our long-planned, MasterPath tracking system and many of members have already started their sheet. Some of you might not even realize that they are out and waiting for you. Well they are out, and they are waiting, and they will help you get the most out of your path with us. Ask a coach in session or email us with questions.
Let’s get to why and how to track. First, we define fitness as having two attributes: Strength & Movement.
Strength is your output. And we see a broad horizon of Strength, one that includes all outputs:
- Inner Strength (core / stability strength)
- Strength (contractile ability)
- Power (force)
- Stamina (high intensity output over time)
- Endurance (low intensity output over time)
All of these are Strength. In this way, “strength and conditioning” sounds redundant. It’s just two different outputs along the spectrum of Strength. One thing that all forms of strength have in common: all can be measured. Strength is Math.
Movement is your input. Movement includes
- Range of Strength (because flexibility/mobility without strength is a liability)
We can go into some of the above definitions another time (feel free to ask, too), but Movement is essentially how well you apply your strength. Weak strength? Weak movement. Heck, no strength? Good luck moving. But if you have strength, well, the movement world becomes your oyster. Movement becomes Mastery. But not without Strength.
By recording a couple numbers on your path, you give yourself a window to know where you were, where you are at, and where you are going. Athletically or therapeutically, tracking helps you to ratchet up your abilities. Aesthetically, it will allow you to achieve those self-redefining results you’re seeking. For many of us movers, we even stop caring so much about them. In short, progression = improvement. No progression? No improvement.
Let’s go off message for a moment. Because contrary to modern quantophrenic beliefs, numbers do not hold all truths. And the slew of products and companies that big data your whole life don’t help either. “Anything that helps me do a little is good, right? A little is better than nothing!?” Of course it is. That’s an unassailable argument and anyone would agree. It’s also a cop out. If you are going to do anything, might as well do a right thing.
If you eat anything today, you will satiate your hunger and stave off scurvy and starvation. That doesn’t mean what you eat is helping you toward a path that might actually matter to you.
In fitness and life, not all that matters boils down into a number. There are days to move your number needles and days to just move, to work out the kinks, to have fun and let go. Just because you step into a workout, doesn’t mean today you will build your personal fitness Rome.
Any of our workouts can have a Strength emphasis (pushing your Strength, Power or Stamina/Endurance capacities forward), or a Movement emphasis (cleaning out soreness, moving through a day’s tweakiness, or working on qualities like Alignment, Range of Strength, Patterning, Flow, etc.). Most high-value exercises, that is ones that work patterns that matter, can be scaled down to therapeutic value or scaled up to aesthetic and athletic intensity.
Feeling a little wonky? Make today a Movement day.
Have the eye of the tiger? Move your Strength needles forward a little.
But move, always. Don’t wait to get inspired to move, you move to get inspired. The inspiration comes from doing the damn thing, not before.
Back to message. Over time, some numbers matter. Strength, in many ways, is math. But the equation takes time and progression is something that happens incrementally. It happens because you are on path, over time, week in and week out. Consistency is the foundation of success, and mindfully applying intensity where it matters will mean you step forward. This is why fitness won’t happen faster by trying to purge your demons in every workout. Fitness will happen with consistency and by apply intensity where and when it matters. It won’t happen by freaking out every workout. Or freaking out if you miss one or some. Freaking out has never been a recipe for success.
So what are the most important qualities of fitness? As far as outputs go: Strength and Power. Why? Because Strength and Power are deeper and broader qualities of fitness and ability. They improve every other quality of fitness– including your Stamina/Endurance and they are underneath all the qualities of Movement.
That doesn’t mean we don’t love us some cardio. Done right and with the right patterns, Stamina-styled cardio can also help keep up your Strength and Power capacities. And Endurance can be great for head space (and probably why smart people are often sucked into endurance addictions), and occasional challenges. Heck, we practice some Stamina in every session. It grows your brain, it flushes the system, it releases stress, and increases smiling.
Still, cardio capacity by itself is an ephemeral quality of fitness. It goes up quickly when you practice it, and drops off in a hurry when you stop. We track Stamina over a cycle, but we don’t carry over from cycle to cycle. This is why how winded you get in a workout is the weakest indication of your actual ability baseline. And why stamina/endurance folks tend to feel that they can’t miss a single training day because they feel like they are slipping. That’s because to a degree, they are. Cardio-based fitness is short term fitness.
Many of us in New England have been off our regular fitness path over this crazy winter. Me too. My body is tired of lifting snow, my right elbow is feeling tweaky, and I’m sick of outside time being spent from car to door. I’ve been moving with useful, mindful intensity only sporadically. Yesterday, I got totally winded at our Stamina session. But, I still could apply my Strength and Power. Rather than get bummed about my tweakiness and down on myself about having low cardio, I understand that what matters is that I got back to work on what matters. I gave the greatest emphasis of my workout to the patterns that were focused on Strength and Power. And I put my Stamina numbers on the cycle’s blackboard.
And next cycle, I intend to help people move their numbers forward, just a little. Myself included.
There are three goals for most movement paths: Aesthetic, Athletic, and Therapeutic. Whether your goals are focused on one or a blend, you have to keep your head in check. Of all the obstacles in life, none are more challenging or ever present than our own head devils. Here are some tactics for staying on target for all three:
Here are two common aesthetic goals. While they overlap they are most definitely not the same.
Weight loss comes from good food patterns and consistency. You have to make sustainable changes to diet. You can’t increase intensity sustainably, and too much intensity will lead to injury, and that will ruin consistency. Here’s a bulletproof equation:
The right food and rest patterns (for you) every day + useful intensity a few days a week + low intensity (e.g., walking or hiking) most days.
And you might remove the idea of a particular number, or a particular shape as your “end goal” — especially if it’s associated with your past. Live for you: who you are now and who you will be tomorrow. Remember too that people see themselves harshly, through the lens of what they dislike. What if you started your concept of self with what you and your friends and family loved? How would that change your way forward?
Building Tone / Muscle comes from applying good intensity, good rest, and not subverting progress with bad food. You can’t just show up and go through the motions and expect changes, you have to dig in. And if you are digging in, you need to rest and remember that progress happens while you rest.
If your food isn’t aligned with your toning or building goals, you will be swimming hard against the current. If your mileage is keeping you from digging in, then you have to confront that first. Ignoring it is no way forward.
Finally, confront your head: is that extra muscle / tone going to finally make you content or just reinforce your discontent? There are other reasons for being awesome.
Building athletic ability takes intensity. But it also takes subtlety. Especially if you want it to last beyond a single event or goal. Many strength and conditioning programs make common mistakes: pushing too much intensity, an over reliance on quantitative fitness, a mindset of putting the blinders on and bearing down, or treating all athletes like max strength athletes (because that’s what their strength coaches and trainers love to do, or all they know).
Athleticism is a heady mix of capacity for various strength intensities and movement complexities. Don’t drown in the sea of single-dimensional intensity. It feels good to be in the deep end, but an athlete needs to practice many things: complete intensity, self and movement awareness, complete movement patterning, rooting and springing, balance and flow. The more breadth and depth your path delivers, the better and deeper your abilities will be–and last. We are all more powerfully motivated by short-term rewards than long term. The most successful people in all avenues of life still hold the long-term rewards up higher.
To benefit from the therapeutic benefits of any movement practice, you have to let go of intensity and embrace awareness and complexity. Many goal-oriented personalities have a hard time with this. Plus, movement is a drug. Once you start moving, the flush of chemicals and feeling can cloud your better judgment. And we have fight or flight mechanisms that quiet signals that are trying to tell us to slow down (e.g., pain).
Movement has healing properties equal to and beyond many expensive passive drugs and manipulative therapies, but only if you can harness it correctly. If you have an injury, you downshift. You might even need to see a talented therapist to get over the pain. When the pain is gone, the root of the injury still isn’t healed–you have to build your intensity back up slowly, incrementally. You can’t just leap back in. And if that injury came from weakness or a range of strength restriction, you take care of that deeper issue. Unresolved deep issues don’t go away.
Confront Your Truth
Any successful approach to your own path depends on confronting the truth: your goals, your body, and it’s mileage. Here are two lessons I, and many others, have learned the hard way (maybe it’s not the only way).
- Don’t set goals, meditate on them. A little honest introspection may help you come to pull apart what you think you want and what you actually, truly want. A clouded compass will not lead you to the correct path. And goals–especially ones built on the whispers of a head devil–are the best means of increasing dissatisfaction and lead you to run yourself ragged. Work instead on dealing with your roots, on creating the patterns to keep you on your path. The destination will take care of itself.
- Take ownership of your path. It’s tempting to want to unload responsibility for your stumbles (or your success!) onto another person, or a program. But it’s not what’s really going on. For years, I blamed rowing and heavy barbells on my gangly frame for my debilitating back injury. Sure, I can tell you exactly how those paths can lead to pain, and why they contributed to mine. But the real truth is my own ego led me to push myself for years even when chronic pain increased. I wrapped my identity up in those momentary abilities. In order to do so, I also rationalized that my that short-term, max athletic capacity also meant health. I see the power of irrational rationalization being applied to many stumbling physical paths.
When my body finally collapsed, it still took me years to let go of ego and output ability as drivers of my movement path. I had to remove the idea that every time I trained, I had to go for broke. I had to change what working out felt like and more importantly–what it meant to me. I had to change my reasons for training. No one could do that for me. To quote our Coach-turned-Geologist Alison, “You have to do you for you.” This is no easy business.
Have a hard time finding your way? Let’s talk about it. We’ve had many long consultations with people who have struggled to find their way across a spectrum of goals. We don’t promise a prescription, but maybe we can help you find your way. We’d be honored. Email us.
Ethan’s Surprise Run and Tracey Avoids Shoulder Surgery
We’ve heard a number of stories recently about what our path has helped members accomplish with the helping hands of Strength & Movement. Here’s a couple, paraphrased:
Ethan’s Surprise Run
Ethan is a cyclist with a standing trail-run every holiday season when he visit’s his brother-in-law, a hard-driving triathlete. He usually gets smoked by the endurance athlete long before the 6 miles are up, but this year something changed.
“I kept wondering when I was going to tank, but I just kept going.” He said the only thing that’s changed in the year between is adding a little Strength, Power and Stamina to his movement life. “I have to give the credit to you guys!”
Thanks, but you did all the work, Ethan. Nice work!
Tracey Avoids Shoulder Surgery
Tracey is a runner (who also pilots that orange-rimmed hot rod in the lot!) and came to us with the goals of 1) doing a pushup, 2) returning to the slopes, and 3) getting over a shoulder injury sustained at her last training spot. Well, she’s batting .1000:
- she performed not just one, but 5 pushups for the first time in her life,
- she not only returned to the slopes, but was complemented by an instructor on her apparent core strength
- she’s moved beyond the shoulder pain, but at a recent check in with the doctor, she was told that she’d built up so much strength around the injury, she could avoid the intended surgery.
She also brought up a crew of cool kids, including one who also trains at G! Mom and son training together?! How’s that for a cool family?
Bottom line: Strength Saves!
Honored to hear it, guys. Thank you for sharing your awesome selves with us!
A member recently joked about me being just a little too young to personally know about getting old and the aging body. The member also assumed I was 30-ish and was surprised when I mentioned I was 40ish. I turned 39 this month. It’s not old by a long shot. But it’s not young either. And I have lived my years.
It started wheels turning and got me to a little reflection. Here’s a few chosen nuggets of what I’ve done since I was truly young, 20 years ago. Since 19, I…
- Joined a fraternity (Sigma Chi), won a bunch of crew medals (3 seat, starboard), got the grades and graduated college (U of MN, Ski-u-mah!).
- Survived a motorcycle crash (forward roll) and climbed a few mountains (keep going).
- Studied and taught Kung Fu and Tai Chi (thank you, Sifu).
- Learned to rock climb, snowboard, surf, fight, and the discipline of Kettlebell.
- Treated myself to depression and got treated for it.
- Had my heart broken, broke someone’s. More than once.
- Moved and made a home 15 times across two countries and two US coasts.
- Came one signature away from joining the military.
- Worked hard in steel-toed boots, in a serving apron, and at an embassy in Malaysia, for the Ford Motor Company, for a Dot Com startup, and for big companies and brands through consulting (thank you, City Square).
- Lost my faith. Maybe gained something in its place.
- Educated myself through classics of the East and West (Marcus, please meet Miyamoto).
- Had many wild nights.
- Had many quiet mornings.
- Learned my capacity for addiction.
- Wrote and self-published a book.
- Broke my body in pursuit of ability.
- Fixed my body and redefined ability.
- Shifted my physical identity from athletic output to mastery.
- Buried friends and family members.
- Witnessed some births of the next generation.
- Met my future wife, courted each other, and married.
- Stood against and crumbled under trials and uncertainty.
- Met my daughter.
- Made, lost, and held important friendships.
- Started a business.
- Shifted from relying mostly on others, to relying mostly on myself, to being relied on.
- Discovered what it means to shudder alone in a leased corner in a strange place gripped with existential terror.
- And then survived.
- And then thrived.
- Cultivated a powerful fitness path, my own Kung Fu, one that continues to unfold.
- Made connections through my business path that continue to evolve and blossom.
- Began to learn what it means and takes to shift from being Coach and Janitor-in-Chief to Founder and CEO.
Most of the deepest, truest experiences of life are similar across lives. They feel unique only because they make us feel so much.But they are not. I’d love to give myself some succinct perspective on 20 years. To tie together all the bullets–and all those entirely unbullet-able experiences that were not mentioned–into a personal and useful bow. Three things come to mind.
- The first: at the end of all our little life triumphs and tragedies, the only thing of real value is how and whether we’ve connected ourselves to ours and the world. Connection to people that matter will lead you to your best self.
- The second: there is only one true emotion–bittersweet. Truest in that it attends the best and deepest experiences.
- Third: the only reasonable response to the universe or yourself is a good chuckle.
But none of these are sufficient. When I was young, I prayed a lot. I twice prayed so hard I was directly answered (or convinced myself I had been). On most days, I prayed for wisdom. I had some idea it was more important than knowledge, but I didn’t know why. Now I know why, that I don’t have it, and that it isn’t a thing to have anyway. I live in a place and time that celebrates youth and passing ephemera above all else, but a wisdom path teaches that the best is yet to come.
I am 39 and infinitely more than I was at 19. I’m 39 and know life’s acceleration curve. I’m still learning how to pace myself on it. I’m 39 and I’m a white belt again (thank you Sensei!). I’m 39 and I am strong for others, weak for myself, and I am still hungry to work on both.
A good path delivers more than its follower could ever imagine. I’m 39 and I’m on a good path.
In Strength & Movement.
In a Nutshell:
- Fitness is an interconnected path. It touches and affects every aspect of life. Like any far reaching path, it can lead to it’s own wisdom.
- Fitness goals / motivations can be considered as Gates along its path.
- There are quantitative and qualitative elements to the Gates.
- The 5 Gates of Fitness
- Release. The mental and physical release of exercise. Fitness catharsis.
- Change. Change is seeing, counting, or feeling an external change in your body (aesthetic).
- Ability. Ability is experiencing or measuring improvements in your physical capacity (athletic).
- Tribe. Tribe means moving away from an entirely internal fitness motivation: “how does my fitness help myself?”, toward an external fitness motivation: “how does my fitness help others?” The social–and ultimately selfless–element of fitness.
- Identity. Your Identity is your filter for interpreting the world and engaging it. This is learning who you really are and how well you both affect and accept who you are, and how you put yourself into the world. This is the realm of mastery.
- Getting stuck at some Gates is a concern (“revolving doors”), though there are strategies for avoiding getting trapped.
- Recognizing the Gates does not mean that you (or I) have (or are finished) passing through them. It’s not about achievement; it’s about being present, honest and walking your path.
The 5 Gates of Fitness
What motivates us to step toward our fitness goals? What makes us walk in the door (or out the door)? What makes us (want to) do the work? What does fitness look and feel like? What do we need? What makes our hearts sing? What do we really need?
Fitness is an interconnected path. It touches and affects every aspect of life. Like any far reaching path, it can produce its own lessons in wisdom. But to earn that wisdom takes work and no small measure of reflection. Both are key. Only working hard at fitness is most definitely not enough to earn wisdom, unless maybe it’s delivered through oldest of teachers: suffering.
In my own fitness, and attending daily to that of countless others, I’ve come to see motivation and goals as gates along the path. It’s a useful metaphor. A gate is both a beacon to strive for, and a thing to actively achieve or pass through. Imagine a temple at the top of mountain, and all the steps that must be walked before walking through the main gate. And then all, actual and personal, that await once in the temple. More concretely, think of the mile markers along a race.
Those who know me, know I’m a fan of the classical mind. The ideal of following big questions through life appeals to me. Today, statistics rule our understanding of the world (or our confusion about it). But with all of our knowledge and achievements, our collective wisdom for what to do with it all hasn’t increased. The classical masters knew this. In their day, much heed was paid to the individual mind–what its experience and meditations could uncover. Though the world around us has changed dramatically, the questions of internal understanding (knowing thyself) and external action (how am I to live?) haven’t changed. Not at all. These questions will always be required work, deeply personal work, for anyone looking for completeness and dare I say it: wisdom.
Back to how this relates to the fitness path. There are two categories of goals: Quantitative and Qualitative. Quantitative goals are measured by numerical change, qualitative goals are measured by feeling or perceiving change. People often focus on the former (statistics!), but the latter are the most profound (wisdom!). In fitness, what we all can achieve falls roughly into the same handful of things. For all our variations, we’re a pretty similar lot (statistics again! Or is that wisdom?). If you aren’t familiar with it, look up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to see where I found specific inspiration.
One note of caution. Some Gates, especially the lower / quantitative ones, can become revolving doors. That is, people become stuck, spinning around in place, perhaps blinded by one goal, and forget that there’s more further down the path. This sounds trite from the vantage of a blog post, but take a closer look at your own fitness path. You may surprise yourself. I continue to delight and disappoint myself whenever I pause to reflect. That’s the key. It’s not about achieving the right track and maintaining it indefinitely–that’s impossible.You won’t and you can’t. It’s about recognizing that there is a path, and more lies in wait further down along it. A little honest meditation will always remind you of what’s really what.
There are mountains of useful fitness statistics floating out there, growing exponentially with research, and the devices and apps to track more and more of it for yourself. There are countless people and gurus who’ve compiled that information into knowledge. And then there are the rare folks who’ve taken their path all the way to wisdom. I am not one. But I believe in my path. And every once in a while I come to footsteps that remind me to keep going.
So, let’s get going. Why do you get fit?
The 5 Gates of Fitness
The first three Gates have a ready mix of quantitative and qualitative attributes. The last two are mostly qualitative, most profound, and so are the most difficult to achieve.
- Release. To physically work hard, to release calories and stiffness, to earn some soreness. To emotionally work out negative emotions, to feel your body alive, and reset yourself. Release is the catharsis of fitness.
- Change. Change is seeing, counting, or a feeling an external change in your body. It’s reducing fat, adding muscle/tone, and shifts in your physical shape. This is the aesthetic element of fitness.
- Ability. Ability is experiencing or measuring improvements in your physical capacity. It’s being stronger, more powerful, having more stamina, more grace, more awareness, more usefulness. This is the athletic element of fitness.
- Tribe. Tribe means moving away from an internal fitness motivation: “how can I help myself”, toward an external fitness motivation: “how can I help others?”. This is the social–and ultimately selfless–element of fitness.
- Identity. Your identity is your filter for interpreting the world (internal) and engaging it (external). Identity is learning and accepting who you are fully–your strengths and weaknesses and how well you affect and accept them. It’s understanding that some elements will remain unchanged, and others can and will change. Your own identity is nothing short of your fortress or your prison. Here be mastery.
Release (Quantitative / Qualitative)
Release is the catharsis of exercise. To physically work hard, to release calories and stiffness, to earn some soreness. To work out negative emotions, to feel your body alive and reset yourself.
An emotional release can be seen in practitioners of many stripes of movement who are motivated by the positive feeling they get or the head space they escape into while doing their thing. The Yoga Cloud one floats out on after a great session or the so-called runner’s high (psst: it doesn’t only belong to runners!) are perfect examples of this.
The Sticking Points
- You can be clouded by the emotional release and seek that high or feeling, even at a high cost to your body, very much like an addict.
- You can get stuck chasing burned calories and soreness (and stretchiness) as though the value of your fitness path is entirely defined and judged by achieving these situational rewards.
How to approach this gate: Shift your mindset. A low-value practice is about what you get rid of. A high-value path is about what you gain. Enjoy the catharsis of vigor, but don’t get lost in it.
Don’t rely on exercise to chase your emotion tail–you won’t catch it, or you will have to keep trying, endlessly. Turn your workouts into a practice of mastering movement. The experience shifts away from an errand of intensity, performed for the sake of a feeling, or calories burned and body parts taxed and toward learning and growing. Every practice can still deliver a good, useful sweat, and shake off some life-weight by session’s end. But know that these are the beginning, not the end.
Change (Quantitative / Qualitative)
A body change is the number one aim for starting a fitness program. It’s also what many consider to be the end of the road. Most folks begin with a fitness vision set firmly in their mirror. They want to be smaller, bigger, more toned, or more or less something other than what they are now. Even if you are generally satisfied with your body, you aren’t upset when your body changes in ways that make you proud and confident.
The Sticking Points
- Some people actually achieve (or are genetically blessed with) a wonderful physique! And then continue chasing or scrambling to hold on to a vision of perfection until that vision blurs into something else altogether. Bodybuilding, modeling, plastic surgery are all perfect examples of this. Of course everyone “knows” that if you wrap up too much identity into your physique, you will end up disappointed. But many don’t realize it until it happens.
- If you don’t achieve the changes you want, or invest too much emotion and expectation into that change, you can get frustrated and stop trying to do anything. Or you’ll get hung up on your changes and try mnay drastic or haphazard things to achieve this kind of change (crazy diets, pills, workout everyday, etc.). Too often, people run circles around arbitrary weight and aesthetic goals that don’t have anything to do with their actual, current body.
The truth is that we all do this to a degree. The moment we notice (or someone else notices) a subtle change we worry (or freak out) about it, see it as evidence of decline (or an existential threat). Do people really love their 4 different bicep curls, toning routines, or endless hours of machine work? Or are they addicted to the emotional Release those things provide and the temporary escape from their fear of change? As with most things, maybe it’s somewhere in between love and fear. It’s up to the individual to be honest about which side holds the most weight.
How to approach this gate: We’ve seen over and over again that external changes often happen faster, and are more enjoyable, when they are a result of other achievements. This Gate is best when it’s celebrated as a side-effect. The higher order Gates can be great replacements for this one, especially if it’s doing more to harm motivation than support it.
Another aspect to Change is recognizing how you feel in your body, not the number on a scale. Are you more energetic? Do you feel different in your clothes? Do you carry yourself differently? Are you sleeping better? Do you have less stress? Do you have new friends at your training space ?
Ability (Quantitative / Qualitative)
Doing a little more than you did last time is rewarding. Doing something you never thought possible is a powerful. And both can be readily quantified. Once someone notices their rising ability levels, they often forget about the scale, or at least let go of the meaning it once had. Because fitness is ultimately a definition of ability, this is the top of the quantifiable measures. (But note that it’s still not the end of the road.)
Ability is often associated with athletic performance and athletes become intensely focused on this. PRs, team sports performances, competitions and races of all stripes. These can be very rewarding experiences. Have you ever seen an Olympian cry? Or how about someone complete a race they never thought possible? Deeply moving stuff.
Ability can be subtly profound when engaged with other activities outside the actual training–your running legs feel stronger, lifting common objects takes less effort, or you notice your favorite activity has become easier and more enjoyable. You might stand taller, walk lighter, stumble less, or jump and catch a pencil as it rolls off a counter. You realize your child flies up into your arms with ease. Ability most certainly also points to regaining movement or activity lost to injury or disuse.
Many common fitness activities make you adept for specific outcomes (running for example). I prefer a path that has it’s own intrinsic value and extrinsic value. It will connect to and make you better at many things, not just The Thing. This is both an important distinction to make and a tough balance to strike. And our powers of rationalization are unsurpassed.
The Sticking Points
- Placing too much emphasis on numerical measurements of success. As identity gods, they are just as false as the aesthetic ones.
- Getting so lost in your training, so focused on progress or competition, that you lose sight of the broader horizon. Of your health, youractual fitness, and even of your broader life.
How to approach this gate: Have some useful numbers in your practice because it’s a direct means of seeing your ability change over time, week to week, and cycle to cycle (you do cycle your training, don’t you?). It’s externalized truth. Numbers hold yourself accountable to moving your needles forward. This is the highest quantitative gate for a reason and should be part of every path.
Don’t see Ability as something that happens in a particular moment, or a specific athletic venue or circumstance. Ability happens as an ongoing process–step-by-step, day-to-day, moving forward across the horizon of your life. If you pour your heart into short-term achievements, you may or may not accomplish them. But even if you do, they may be all you accomplish. Your peeling medals and fading PRs will be all you have once you are burned out or broken down.
I used to believe that to be a high-caliber mover, you just train hard and never let yourself slow down. Thank goodness suffering finally taught me otherwise! It’s a mighty hard Identity pill to swallow. But really, what athletic glories remain? Do you remember who won the Super Bowl a few years ago? Does it still matter to anyone but the fading stars who played in it? Athletic virtues, whatever they may be, are fleeting. Are kids really taught teamwork and perseverance through athletics, or are they taught to put their head down and specialize their skills into one sport, or one position in one sport. To will to win. To accept that a broken body is the price for maybe getting a scholarship, or just an accepted part of the athlete’s path. The athletic mind is not the way. Glory is not a path to wisdom.
Truly awesome Ability happens incrementally and continues to unfold, and change, as you grow and change, too. True athletes are marvels you’ve never heard of. People who glide gracefully and powerfully through many chapters of their entire life. Maybe in a basement dojo/weight room somewhere, maybe on a farm, maybe on a hiking trail, maybe living in the deep woods in a log cabin, maybe walking everyday around your block with groceries dangling from a strong hand.
We are social beings. We are hard-wired for it. We need to know there are others who think like we do, who want to be around us, who celebrate our victories and help carry us over failures. Facebook took over a significant portion of modern human life for a reason. In fitness, a sense of tribe is the thing that makes you show up when you don’t feel like it and to even try to achieve more than you did the last time. It gives you context and purpose. For an intensely social animal like we are, Tribe is one of the most important things in the world.
The other side of Tribe is not just that people support you and therefore you achieve your own goals more effectively (though that’s true), but that you support their goals and needs. Tribe is passed when your realize that their well-being is tied to your own well-being. When you train alongside others, you are forced to share your weaknesses and trust each other as you work on them. It’s vulnerable space. You can gain a lot from the camaraderie of working together, but you can gain even more by helping someone feel better about their workout, their body, their day. This is the deeper side of Tribe.
The Sticking Points
- In a word: cult. We are programmed to seek and form powerful social connections. These connections help us find our best self, but they can also lead us away from our better selves.
- Focusing entirely on what you, personally, gain from the shared path. Truly approaching Tribe takes time, empathy, and deep caring. If your workouts are a personal escape from stress and pressure, there’s more to be gained.
How to approach this gate: Tribe really means that you are no longer practicing solely for your own sake. You are building ability, knowledge, and capacity to be of ready help to others. It’s helping a new person next to you get over their fear of pushups, or an aged family member with their housework; it’s helping a friend move or plant a garden; it’s just having enough energy and strength to keep up with your kids (grandkids!) and work. It’s helping a stranger walk over an icy patch of parking lot, or another out of a ditch.
At it’s deepest, Tribe is about that realization when your fitness means what you can give back to world around you.
There’s a saying in Chinese martial arts that the longer you practice Kung Fu, the more it becomes a reflection of you. Movement is a powerful path for a direct, transformational experience. For an understanding of yourself from the inside out.
Your most powerful life hinderance and accelerator is your perception of yourself. People commonly see themselves through their weaknesses, not their strengths. Their hang-ups, guilt, and discontentments. This is especially true among folks who are primarily motivated to make a Change. Many who put on a self-assured front do so because they are hyper-aware of what they perceive to be their weaknesses.
With fitness, one’s sense of Identity can shift dramatically once you begin to pass through all the other Gates. Once you create a rhythm to regularly release your negative emotions and heightened energy levels, once you notice that your clothes wear differently, once you recognize an increased physicality, once you create new connections with people, and once you experience the unique presence that comes with confronting and taming your own mind demons.
This all takes time, effort, awareness, presences. This all takes consistent work. But when you’re forced to make room for all of these new strengths in your self picture, awesome blossoms. When the filter through which you engage and interpret the world shifts, look out.
The Sticking Points
- Getting stuck on a single, unchanging sense of yourself. If you only value one static version of yourself, you are destined for disappointment.
- Getting stuck on a narrow vision of yourself. If you handpick a couple elements of yourself to value, and not the complete and forever changing picture, you are destined for disappointment.
How to approach this gate: Your sense of self must start by recognizing your strengths first. Your weaknesses matter, and deserve attention and work, but not at the expense of forgetting your strengths. It’s from them you can get to work on your weaknesses. And it’s on them you lean when you realize there will always be weaknesses.
A shift in self-perception is the most powerful gate one can pass through, and like anything of value needs to be approached for a long time. This is what makes this Gate so rare. This Gate takes on another level of significance for someone who has lost a sense of identity or has had theirs shaken deeply.
The Gateless Gate
Many of the classical polytheistic visions of Truth held that there are many paths to wisdom. That may be (who am I to say?), but just because there are many, it doesn’t mean that every path is destined for it. Just because I wrote a blog, doesn’t mean I have passed through all of these Gates. Pausing to reflect on my experience is part of the work. I also believe that the highest Gate is not a gate at all. It’s the path itself–not anything that can be achieved along it. I have a long way to go and if you are human, I suspect you do, too.
This kind of meditation helps to define your compass, to get a handle on where you are and where there is yet to go. Your life will take reflection and work for the rest of your days. Here’s to hoping your path will take you there.
In Strength and Movement.
I’m the heaviest weight I have ever been. But I’m not going to do anything about it.
Maybe it comes with maturity, maybe it’s exhaustion of trying to squeeze into a version of myself that’s not actually me, cuz I’ve been there too. Many people might look at me and say I’m in great shape and “who are you to complain?” But we all compare ourselves, to our old selves and to each other.
I’d love to tell you that being skinny and waifish didn’t make me happy. It did when I was that! Skinny was the only thing I had, though. I knew deep down I was a mess and couldn’t figure out what else I was bringing to the life table besides being cute and skinny. Maybe it takes not looking the way you think you want to in order to dig a little deeper and find what it is that you really have to offer. Who you really are.
Being skinny is a demon women can never seem to outrun. It runs rampant through our TVs, our social media feeds, it chases us down at lunches out with friends, gatherings with the closest of family. It’s bad for us. Really bad. What’s worse is that proving our desire to be skinny is even expected of us by our own friends and family. It’s not just the magazines, our own circles reinforce the demon we all despise.
I was at a bridal shower table with some of my closest college friends. These are girls I lived with, cheered with, ate with, everything-ed with. Girls who I’ve seen and have seen me cry in a bathtub over a boy (of course). Do I care how any of them look today? No. I’m happy we are able to see each other once this year. But do I care whether or not they think I’ve gained weight, if they’re wondering if I’ve been working out? Yes. I do care.
As we sit there, the conversation inevitably turns to our bodies. Many of us are fit. Some are CrossFitters, others are members of some alternate venue for flying our fitness freak flags. The chat today is whether we are “too muscular,” maybe we should “tone it down, try to be smaller.” Two years ago, it was all about longing for toned and muscular arms (which we all have now). The “oh, me too!” and “I just want to be skinny!” starts flying all over and I can’t help but join in. I even notice it happening. I am fully present to the moment and I don’t like it but I chime right in with the same complaints. I can’t stop myself.
My ride home from the shower is spent wondering about my own programming, figuring out whether I should squeeze in more running, contemplating skipping some exercises this cycle, or maybe just go light for “toning”. No wait, it’s my diet. I just need to lean out a little more. I should drop carbs, drop fat, drop carbs and fat, do a Whole30 minus fruit and nuts. I’ll just stop eating so much.
My mind races. Everything I pride myself on knowing better than, being above, all of those thoughts I have worked so hard to overcome in the past few years flood my brain and I am consumed with the skinny demon. I know I’ll snap out of it, but I wonder why the fucking fuck I am here again. If I were sitting around with G coaches and members, I wouldn’t be caught dead preaching anything less than how each of us, myself included have awesomesauce running through our veins. How we are so beyond thinking skinny means anything, how we value ourselves for so much more than that, for being strong and capable and badass! So why, after banging out a PR on pullups at G this morning and feeling on top of the world for it, am I on the verge of a fitness breakdown, questioning all that I know to be truth? Because I can’t help it. None of us can and we fuel each other’s fire.
Outside of my sanctuary, all reality and truth is lost based on a comment from a loved one, a shirt that’s too tight, a big event. There just won’t ever be any escape from these situations or these conversations. It’s the thing you can count on as a woman: women getting together to hate on themselves.
Why? What if you didn’t, though? What if you could find a place of acceptance, and dare I say even love for your body and it’s capabilities? What if you were the one friend who didn’t participate in the conversation or steered it in another direction? How do we go about doing and actually feeling that? I don’t know. But these questions are generally where I start.
Besides Coaching, I also do hair. Sometimes, I’m standing in front of the mirror in my underwear, clothes strewn about, freaking out about feeling fat, with a client coming to the salon in 20 min. I pull out the eyeliner, curling iron, maxi dress and just get it together. I remind myself that my client only cares how beautiful I make them, not how I look doing it. Everyone has that outfit or look that makes them feel better, or at least not awful. I have mine and I put it on. I don’t care if I wore it to work two days ago. I take a pouty selfie and move on with my day. The stupid demon goes away. Other times, I need to dig a little deeper.
I ask myself lots of questions starting with “am I getting my big three right?”
- Am I eating the way I know works for me?
- Am I moving often and with the right mix of intensity?
- Am I getting enough sleep?
Those are my big three. We all have our own, but if you don’t yet, take mine! More times than not, the answer is yes to all three and I just need a high five to the face. I’d bet it’s what most of us need.
My strategies are ever evolving. I am creating my path and figuring out what I need to live the life I feel most confident in and satisfied with. It changes. I know it’s ok to not have it figured out and to have these feelings come up no matter how far along the path to self love I might be on most days. I’m still young but I’ve been through things, faced things, figured out things. I’ve actually grown up and made my way. And I’ve been around long enough to realize that not everyone can say that.
Figuring out how to cope with my life takes trial and error, patience, and will be completely unique to me. The demons may never leave me alone, but awareness and practice means I’ll meet them less and less. And each encounter will be less devastating than the one before. Eventually, the “I feel great” and the “I love my____” outweigh the “I hate my_____” and the “I wish I were_____.” And, I’m always glad when the smoke clears and realize I no longer pound my body with terrible fitness or food choices because of my demons.
At one obstacle course race last summer I was among 5% of participants who climbed the entire rope. I can run, sprint, climb, lift, pushup, pullup, crawl, jump and love circles around my younger, skinnier self. I may be at the heaviest weight I’ve ever been, but I’m also so much more than I have ever been. And you know what? I love it that way.
ED: Deanna has tried and put aside every food and fitness craze this side of the 1980s before finding Gymnasium and her own path. She is now the Assistant Head Coach and is available for small group, group and private coaching. Her specialties include healthy body transformation through strength, movement & food, and competitive cheerleading. She can also transform your hair at Studio 291.
This is the last email from an awesome former coach, Alison, sent just before she left to start graduate school (published with her permission!).
Today I worked 8 hours of manual labor, covered those 3 sessions, drove to Cambridge to pick up a frustrating high school friend who kept me out despite my wishes, and then burned it up on the dance floor in Allston for two and a half hours by myself while my former classmates were ‘too tired’ to carry on.
I know that a lot of my super strength is just because of my youth… but man, I had incredible stamina. Unparalleled by any of my peers on the dance floor. I was getting cheered for, after a ridiculously active day at two jobs, and it all looked effortless. I didn’t even know I could shake my butt cheeks that way. #innerstrength.
One year ago I read an article talking about how if you let go of crazy rules, and build strength and eat well 70% of the time your body will look much better and you’ll feel much better at the same weight… and after one full year at G, I’m finally getting it. 70% of the time I’m training and eating well. I’ve finally learned that consistency pays off.
I can’t feel great or move great all the time, but generally applying myself at Gymnasium and this programming has created incredible, beautiful miracles in my life. I used to think I couldn’t dance. Now, I can work time-and-a-half and then burn it up afterwards, while getting cheered on by strangers who don’t know me, but who are amazed by my hip mobility and inability to stop twerking all night. It is so empowering. I always wanted to believe I had it in me, but I didn’t have an outlet for it until I met you. Sh**, I could barely squat a year ago. Now I’m doing jump squats while shaking it for an hour at a time, after a long day at two jobs.
Thank you for being the conduit that has let me release the badass woman that is inside of me. I always knew I had it, but I never knew how to channel it.
Much love, so many blessings upon you. Even when life feels like a drag, know that what you do shapes lives in incredible, palpable, sometimes hard to articulate ways.
Be there at 9am working hard. Then, I’m going to rest hard for a few hours, because balance is very important, and you’ve taught me that.
PS My work pants are tight on the legs and loose on the waist, and I like it that way. Better than freaking out about weighing less and wondering if I’m good enough. F*** that. Now, I have real power. Now, the most important job for me will be maintaining this weight and keeping up my strength levels through future years. I want to be the fittest mom on the block, and that’s a challenge that I take very seriously.
Intensity is both useful and necessary if you want to actually move your fitness needles. Whether for building inner or outer strength, power, stamina/endurance, or flexibility, you will need to apply some form of intensity in your practice to move yourself forward. And intensity is a beautiful drug. It floods the mover with an undeniable high, a shimmering exclamation of aliveness.
As teachers and coaches, we help our clients push themselves to achieve more intensity in their training so they can achieve more from their training. And they crave it from us. They demand it! If we go easy on them, they are disappointed. Many hold steadfast to the belief that only through gutting out the extremely difficult will their elusive reward emerge, whatever shape it takes.
Because intensity is a drug, addiction is a real threat. I know of many former drug addicts who found solace in the physical path. And many movers are unabashedly addicted to the feeling they get from their physical pursuits. I’ve had potential clients claim this addiction as a primary goal. I once had someone tell me they wanted to feel as though they’d raced a 5K, everyday. I’m still a runner and I get what that’s all about.
Yes, there is plenty of good–even great–to be found by finding and harnessing intensity. But there is no such thing as a good addiction. If you don’t believe this, look up the definition.
And intensity addicts are not just a select group of high-level, world-class movers. Intensity has become a full on, decades-long zeitgeist. Somehow, running and cycling became (ultra?) marathon and Ironman, Yoga became competitive acrobatics, calisthenics became Insanity, martial arts became MMA, cross-training became Crossfit. Where does all of this red-faced, gasket-blowing intensity come from?
Two places. First: our ego and competitive nature (with others and ourselves) drive us. And second: the arbitrary goals we place before ourselves, or are placed by our peer group, reinforces that drive. These two forces, internal and external, can cause us to put our head down and dig into the moment. The problem with putting your head down and digging in all the time is that you become unable to see where you are actually heading. There’s a reason that high-level or extreme movement or athletic paths seldom end with summiting the mountain, bathed in glory. You must always make a long trek back down. That’s when we reflect upon what we’ve really gained. For too many, that reflection is quite a let down.
The physical road is a personal truth path. Nothing tells you who you are, changes who you are, reminds you who you are so deeply as something difficult in which the pursuit is its own end. It’s partly why many of us find such rich reward in anchoring our lives, and helping others do the same, with movement.
I’ve followed intensity deep into rabbit holes and over and over again on my path. Addiction runs in my family; and I know I lean toward it myself.Over the decades, a few things have emerged that keep intensity from clouding my own path forward. Or dragging me along it.With any real wisdom, you don’t actually acquire it. You can only recognize its truth. I must keep learning each of these.
So how do we move all the way up the mountain and still smile knowingly on the way down?
- Know where intensity is even useful. Because it’s not useful everywhere. One anchor in my path is strength training. Even here, there are limited strength patterns in which maximum intensity is of value. For me, max effort is only ever applied with simple pushes and pulls where there is minimal risk (e.g., pushups, pullups, presses, rows). And I cycle my focus exercises while still feeling strong, not after I’ve begun to feel weak, tweaky, or stuck.
- Know where your intensity comes from. Frustration? Disappointment? Dissatisfaction? Anger? Guilt? Jealousy? If negativity is your fuel, your intensity will get away from you. I try to never leave a practice feeling like I still have head crap to work on. A good practice should help you step outside, not into those. (NB: still learning!)
- Breathe behind the effort. Holding your breath almost invariably means you are probably holding too much tension. Even with high tension work on pullup bars or strength movements like squats, I cue exhaling. I coach people to lead every movement, every rep, with their breath. “Control your breath; control your movement.”
- Give yourself and your students/athletes, permission to relax. Some of us just need permission to not achieve intensity enlightenment every time we set foot on the floor, road, or mat.
- All intensity teaches is you is, well…intensity. Intensity overwhelms complexity, always. And if you want to move well for life, you will have to learn how to do it. Another aspect of my path is a power practice (if it’s not in yours, I strongly recommend it). Powerful athletic movements maximize not intensity, but efficiency. That takes movement skill. Think about throwing a pitch, sprinting, jumping, serving a tennis ball, driving a golf ball, or punching and kicking. A low-level mover will shove intensity into a movement and in so doing, ruin it. She may well “feel it”, but the point of power is to release it! A high-level mover will be a vessel. The strength intensity will flow through and out of their body. Watch a video of Ted William swinging a bat. He’s a tai chi master.
- Regular clinical therapy isn’t the price of awesome. Don’t ignore the those little, lasting, nagging injuries. Address them. Use them as reasons to focus on movement, on recovering better, on spending more time living than training. Injuries don’t have to be par for the course (“It’s fine because everyone I know gets hurt!”) or badges of honor. If you take regular trips to the PT, chiropractor, masseuse, or surgeon just to keep up your program, you are on a short one indeed. And you will not be awesome for long. Remember that we only ever see high-caliber athletes at the peak of their ability. Nobody gets to see retired athletes hobble down their post-career.
- Deep fitness is cumulative and incremental. Many people work out session to session, valuing each entirely on how sweaty they get, how sore it makes them feel the next day. Most workouts are built and marketed to these ends. Many athletes live only with their next goal in mind, intensely focused on the task at hand. These are narrow horizons. If you want to find real fitness–deep, life-lasting, life-inspiring fitness– don’t let the little hills obscure the mountain in the distance.
- Train beyond the goal. Instead of seeking a training program that’s intensely focused on scaling up to a short term goal, train knowing that you want to be awesome and continue moving along after the goal is achieved. Think path and process, not program and goal.
Many years ago, at the peak of my quantitative fitness, my amateur athletic accomplishments (I can now hardly remember) left me a wreck. Little injuries had accumulated, and big injuries finally ended what seemed like everything at the time. Now, I’m a symbol of ability for the people in our Strength & Movement tribe. The same way anyone in my position is to their own. I can do many difficult things easily, and people dismiss them because that’s only who they know me to be. But they can’t see my history. Only I know what it feels like to collapse to the ground in agony, or to spend every hour of years in restrictive pain. So it’s critical I help them understand where my abilities come from: consistent effort, not gasket-blowing effort. I practice at low, medium, and high intensity–mostly low and medium! I “workout” less than most people I know. I “work on” more than most people I know (with credit going to one of our coaches, Deanna, for that turn of phrase!).
We track a few numbers in each cycle and I, like many, enjoy seeing my improvements over the weeks. But I never forget that deep fitness grows slowly, steadily. Almost imperceptibly.
With a broad enough horizon, there are only two legitimate types of fitness:
- that which makes your entire life easier and more inspired (especially that which is yet to be lived);
- and that which gives you the ability to help carry others.
In Strength & Movement,
NB: This post was written for Alex Amorosi. Alex is a yoga teacher, colleague, and friend. Learn more about his practice, workshops, teacher training course at http://www.alexamorosiyoga.com/