The year was 1995. Forrest Gump answered the question of what stupid is. Pam and Tommy do the same thing by tying an unfortunate knot (and the world watches as he steers a boat with his endowment). Jerry Garcia, of the band The Warlocks, dies.
It is also the year that a new trend in fitness begins to shape up, so to speak. There are these big, inflatable balls that bring fitness to a whole new level. So simple, yet so effective for developing this new rage called your core. The fit ball, or the swiss ball or the resist-a-ball, this instant fitness classic, was the TRX of the times. Showy, fun, but not really the best bang-for-the-buck. Although more circus act than powerhouse (just like the TRX… yeah, not a huge fan), the fit ball in the mid-90’s was about to become the Next Big Thing.
So it isn’t without a slight bit of embarrassment that I admit to a little known fact. I was the first Resist-a-Ball certified trainer in California. But that isn’t the actual story here. To acquire this cert, one of the 14 or so I collected in the early years when I thought such things mattered, I had a delightfully educating trip to the wonderful town of Calrsbad, CA, where I spent a weekend with some of the most entertaining, and in some cases, irritating, biomechanics geeks I’d yet to encounter at that point in my training life. Arguments such as the correct degree of shoulder joint angle to achieve the greatest rear delt recruitment (yeah… at a big, bouncy ball workshop) abounded, all with complete sincerity.
But the favorite little bit of knowledge I walked away with was about the building that housed the workshop… a decent sized fitness studio that was home to Jazzercize HQ. Even 16+ years ago, some of us had to ask if Jazzercise was still around, and apparently it was (is).
(Quick bit o’ facts from the interweb: “In 2009/2010 Jazzercise reported 96 Million in revenue. On the 2011 Entrepreneur Franchise 500 list, Jazzercise ranks as the #1 fitness franchise and #17 overall. In March 2009, MSNBC placed Jazzercise in their top 5 list of proven franchises that provide growth opportunity.”)
I’m not about to research much more on its current business model, but here is how it worked in the mid 90’s, all of which I learned during my stint in Carlsbad. Every year the institution that is Jazzercise created a routine that could be easily taught. That routine was to last the entire year, so if anyone traveled, they could visit a jazzercise studio anywhere and already know the steps.
Let this prelude just be a little story about not only the length of time I’ve been in this industry, but also the lifespan and evolution of certain trends. An interesting irony: despite its almost 1 billion dollar industry chunk, I couldn’t tell you where a local Jazzercise facility is. In my mind, they’re more underground than olympic lifting gyms, crossfits or kettlebell dens, of which I can point to half a dozen within a couple of miles from me. If being unknown is the litmus for cool, who is hardcore now? Jazzercise… the hipsters of fitness.
So what am I on about then? I’m gonna throw some ideas out there that will help end the potential that is often being wasted in many modern trainers. I’m seeing an amazing network holding itself back. I’m seeing limitless possibility, but only occasional success (and you know who you are). I see a growth of enthusiastic nouveau trainers lacking the true time it takes to understand movement, force development and the human relation to both. As I’ve written before…
With new blood often comes diluted understanding. The new breed of teachers and coaches often haven’t spent the time under the bar, or time at the master’s feet, needed to truly pass on the lessons and traditions that sometimes need a few lifetimes to appreciate. Anything resembling an apprentice process has become a 2-day certification, and now there are too many folks teaching what they, the teachers, barely comprehend. That’s the new trend amongst the popularizing of the once underground Physical Culture. Despite the growing trend of barbells and this pseudo-physical culture that is spreading, most of the new breed of coaches (which seems to be the preferred term over ‘trainer’ these days) are still in proverbial diapers when it comes to introducing force to the body in strange and intense ways. Passion alone doesn’t create a trainer (coach… whatever), nor does a weekend certification or a few initials after your name.
Not only are many of the coaches new to applying movement to other people, but they’re painfully unaware of the many, MANY possible better options for movement, technique and even program design that might be out there. It’s like getting a bachelors degree in a particular subject without even realizing there were other majors, higher levels of degrees or even other colleges.
Here’s an recent example. At a recent fitness convention I met a pair of young women (drinking age would have to be proven) who were raving about their equally young coach, who was with them, and about how brilliant his workouts were. Well, after hearing a bit about his ideas on programming, it was obvious that not only were these workouts a bit short of brilliant, but that none of them knew anything much different. Rule number one of being a trainer (coach… so be it): it is easy to impress an audience who doesn’t know any better. Heck, that’s the entire M.O. of the fitness industry. Be loud, be intense, be enthusiastic, and the general public, who doesn’t know any better, will shout “revolutionary!” That, more so than actual quality, lends to the rise of any fitness trend, no matter how hard we try not to believe that.
Here’s the good news…
A lot of modern ideas aren’t bad ones. Do some quality work using quality movements to create some quality intensity. Keep said quality high and there should be some quality results. That, on paper, is a good absence of bullshit. Simple. Basic. And as is well understood in the iron game, simple is not synonymous with easy, so the workouts will be anything but, since power output, which requires harder work in a shorter period of time, makes the body better.
To create all this quality, you need a bit of lurnin’, a bit of spirit, a bit of passion and a good heaping of free thought. Like any art, craft or skill, some serious study and application needs to happen before ya load up another human being with a barbell and make them move fast. That is where the current execution of the modern trends, certifications and programs falls short.
So what can be done? Well if ya care to read on, I’ve jotted a few ideas here. Keep in mind this very simple premise…
It takes no talent to create a hard workout. A good workout, on the other hand, requires a greater degree of understanding. Do you know the difference?
1) Intensity through Load! Do more by making it harder, but not through volume but rather weight. I recently saw a CF WOD that had 9 exercises done for 30 reps each. 270 reps? That is turning the intensity of sprinting into the slog-fest of jogging, and sloppy jogging at that. That’s diluting true intensity for pure exhaustion. And if anyone thinks the 30 burpees in the middle of this combo will be of anything resembling quality, then you’ve got a poor grasp of what a quality burpee should actually look like.
So… up the weight, lower the reps. Yeah, 30 reps of OH squats at 75 pounds might be a challenge, but what about 15 reps at twice that weight? Or 5 reps at 200? The attempt alone would kick the metabolism into overdrive and the spirit would have a much greater opportunity to chat with the brain and body.
What about the 21/15/9 protocol? It doesn’t suck, but why not make it better? Here’s a switch, one that guarantee will trash you on another level. 9/6/3. But at 85%/90%/95% of your one rep max. Keep with the 2 or 3 exercise scheme, just make the load a challenge, where even the first rep makes the brain interpret the bar as pretty darn heavy. Are ya doing a 400m run in there? How about a 50 yard all-out sprint?
2) Intensity through Creativity! There are far more movement possibilities than the basic 15 exercises used in most WODs and boot camps. First, ditch the superfluous ones. Ball throws, ball slams and anything that falls into the battling rope category… toss it on the same dust bin we all tossed our fit balls from 15 years ago. Fun, sometimes productive, but more fluff than substance, more noise than results. I know, they sure make building a WOD easy. And they’re safe as can be. Unless ya get hit point blank in the face, you won’t get hurt by those squishy time wasters. They’ve got a playful element to them as well, so perhaps not entirely, utterly useless… just highly overused. No one is truly increasing their athletic prowess by tossing a ball up or swinging a sorta heavy rope around.
Second, increase the awareness of your current tools. You’ve got kettlebells… why are ya only swinging and snatching with them (oh, and the occasional get up)? Same with your sandbags, dumbbells and barbells. Oh, and don’t get me started on bodyweight possibilities. Add some lateral movements, rotational movements and do a few things on one leg. And get creative with tools and movement you already do. Here’s an example of taking two movements and expanding them extensively…
…And here’s another video of taking a basic joy of life, the burpee, and asking the question “where can we go from here?”
The kick through burpee at 3:11 in the video will bring seasoned athletes to places they’ve never gone before, both physically and in their souls.
Guess what? These are a little trickier to teach people. Well… what kind of coach are ya?
Third, crawl. The quickest way to increase the overall effectiveness of a workout is to get folks moving on all fours. Bear crawls, gorillas, crab crawls, inch worms, seals, etc. Let the kid in you take over and get as playful as heck. For adults, these are some of the hardest movements to do for any length of time. Covering distance lower to the ground is simple, yet hugely difficult.
You’re an artist. And, believe it or not, so are your members and clients. A mantra we ask continually in the Bodytribe workshops is Where can we go from here? It is an extension of Dan John’s 9th commandment of lifting… Put a bar on the ground and pick it up a bunch of different ways. Whatever tool you have, any positon you happen to be in, ask yourself… where can you go from here?
3) Intensity through Planning! I know CF and bootcamps dig randomness, but random attempts produce random results. Build an actual program. It sure doesn’t have to be a strict linear progression based on formulas, percentages, calculations and stuff written by people with names like Bompa or Verkhoshansky. We’ve found some amazing middle ground in our programming at Bodytribe, with direct measurable progress on everything from mobility to GPP to 1 rep maxes, but with personal inspiration, intuition and feedback that makes the program as organic as it is structured… but that would be another entire post (heck, possibly a book).
4) Intensity through Purity! Do it right. Before ya do it more, do it better. This really, truly is number 1. Oh, how many workshop have I taught where simply correcting pushup form reduced everyone’s numbers into low double digits, or even single digits? Oh… and it makes the workout even harder.
Look… a hard, crappy workout is still a crappy workout. Enduring a tough workout is not life changing. Enduring a GOOD workout is, but it is not always easy to find a modern trainer or coach who knows the difference. The false empowerment of accomplishing a poorly executed workout is currently fueling the nouveau fitness culture, creating the belief that surviving some sort of grueling mishmash of challenging exercises, through any means necessary, is the only goal worth having.
If practice makes permanent, and it does, then the current stopwatch model of ‘do a lot, fast’ is teaching our organic machines slop, therefore making slop permanent. And that breaks machines. Workload is an important factor in fitness, but it is not the ONLY factor by far, nor does it have to be sloppy. Volume and speed are only two ingredients to an athletic stew, and any true coach worth a damn understands that these ingredients are malleable. More of either or both is not always the best option. Often, BETTER is the most important element to making us better. More technique, not volume or speed, can add an intensity challenge and embodiment quality that has a greater effect on the human body.
Your body needs you to believe that doing something correctly is Job One.
5) Intensity through Play! Sure, this seems redundant after everything else mentioned here, but how truly playful is your training? Some ideas we’ve included into our Brutal Recess involve everything from freeform flows to parkour to create-a-burpee challenges. Again, this is another post entirely, but an important one.
6) Intensity through Embodiment! Most modern practices of embodiment are usually found in the stillness of calm meditation, or body scan practices of folks like Jon Kabat-Zinn. But we’ve found that amalgamating movement and intensity with otherwise passive awareness protocols can create quite a piquant little cocktail of performance and enjoyment. It’s dynamic visualization, turning judgment into observation and not mucking up the body’s ability with the extra gunk the brain brings to the process. Mind over matter isn’t really accurate when discussing intense movement scenarios. The brain, so full of judgment, bias and all those giant lists of shoulds and shouldn’ts that we bring to every movement we do, tries to command or interupt the body in its sheer mirth of moving. The brain perceives exhaustion before the body. It isn’t listening to the body as it should, it is shoving all of its judgment on the body.
The mind doesn’t overcome the challenge. To sum up embodiment in a sentence: the mind needs to shut the hell up and let the body do its thing. Turning judgment into observation is the goal, but, of course, we don’t have the space to wax endlessly about it here. Lets just say that embodiment training is the next step in holistic strength, and a great chunk of my next book is dedicated to this enlightening (but potentially boring, I suppose) conviction.
So now what? Well, this incomplete list is my personal reminder as well that intensity, the quasi-tangible fun fest that makes us better at being us, has a great many tools to ensure its potency. As a trainer you can chose to be a cheerleader with a stopwatch, or a life changer. It’s up to you.