Programming Strength, Part 3: Chasing Exhaustion

 In thoughts about stuff
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Teaching at a Mental Meat Heads workshop


I don’t care how you workout. Show me how you live! If you live to workout, perhaps you’ve got it backwards. I dig your 800 pound squat, but I really want to see what that is doing for you.

Now every time I mention the concept of training as a means to get better at physical skills, folks all emphatically nod in agreement… but then run off to conquer their 50 burpees and 100 wall balls. It seems the only skill they want to improve is working out harder.

crossing on logIn a great majority of workshops I teach, I’m in front of groups of people where possibly everyone in the room could out-workout me. On every given day they could WOD all over me. But in the workshop I’ll spend the next 2-5 hours showing them what they can’t do, or at least what they could do better. I don’t care that you can cram in a bunch of reps in a shorter time period than I can. I’d like to show you that skill is built differently. It isn’t about chasing exhaustion.

Because ‘fitness’ has a byproduct of being tired, we’ve turned it into the goal. Now there are two camps of chasing exhaustion:

1) Chase the fatigue to conquer the fatigue.

The skill of not pooping out as easily. In other words push the constitutional boundaries into the red so there is a greater foundation for work capacity when practicing other skills. There is some serious validity to this, and in the ol’ days, before it got the fancy name of ‘metabolic conditioning,’ we called it GPP, general physical preparedness. It was used to not only have a grounding in increased stamina for further skill building, but a blanket ability of being a good beginner at any skill. In other words, it’s going through kindergarten in skill potential.

Here’s where it has gone awry. It is now believed that this is THE skill to have, so the majority of intensity in the gym is geared to doing MORE FASTER, forever building the skill of working out by conditioning the ability to fight the fatigue of that workout. Does it seem wise to use important movement skills of some degree of difficulty for that conditioning, even if it means actually letting those skills break down?

Here is a very common story, although names are changed to protect the victims of modern fitness propaganda:

me stone pile 1An extreme exhaustion chaser, we’ll call him David Lee Roth, and I were chatting recently. A sweet guy and a frenetic energy ball, he was regaling me with tales of yesterday’s extreme WOD, followed by that morning’s other extreme WOD. All the ass got kicked and all the sweat puddled and spilled. This was far from the first time I had heard these exclamations of his quest for lung-shattering, muscle burning workouts. In fact, it is sort of his thing. Facebook and social media are his popular outlet of AMRAPs and buy-ins and EMOMs, and the hundreds of reps and rounds he routinely attacks. It’s a big part of his identity.

And it takes me less than a minute to show him something he can’t do.

road trip me 2bAnd this doesn’t mean I produce the greatest mega-workout for him to try, nor am I any kind of super athlete with mad skills to show off. I might simply say something like “come do this cartwheel flow with me.” Or “lets go climb that storage container and then jump off.” Nothing in his WODtastic, ‘functional’ training actually gave him the skills to do either. He can sweat circles around me (he actually competes in this stuff), but he hasn’t built any usable skills or abilities that I have found to lead to even greater skill chunks. What’s his end game?

A ‘functional’ exercise can be completely voided by sloppy programming.

2) Chasing exhaustion as an addiction.

Recently I heard Doug Kraft speak and lead a meditation here in Sacramento. Part of his talk expanded on something I’ve heard before. When spiritual leaders visit from other countries, they are often surprised and shocked by how much we seem to hate ourselves, and how it shows itself in various forms of abuse. Strange how I had examples right on the edge of my noggin of people I’ve experienced over the years who treated their movement journeys in such a way. There are many folks with the right personalities that have bought into this modern beat-your-ass-up workout world because, simply, they’re addicted to abuse. Whether chemical, emotional or the very tactile, physical abuse of poor training programming, there is a growing culture of perpetuation of this tweaked idea of body relations, and the modern gym culture is not helping.

When asked "what's your sign?", Odessa replies "Carry Chains."

When asked “what’s your sign?”, Odessa replies “Carry Chains.”

In fact we celebrate it. From screwed up ideals like businesses called Live Sore to the popular pump up vernacular strewn with cliches like Beast Mode, the take away seems to be that we’re not doing it right unless we create some unbalanced relationship with our bodies where the brain is the master and the body is the slave. Ironically, that’s actually the opposite of how addiction really works … but you can see the dichotomy that an addict will find appealing in our world of trumpeted self abuse.

Your gym most likely has at least one of these people, but cognitive dissonance, supported by a culture that clicks that ‘like’ button every time he or she posts a picture of themselves in a sweat puddle on the floor, assures them that it is a coveted ideal.

Obsession is dysfunction, parading falsely as passion.

Meanwhile we mistake chasing exhaustion for skill building. We smear out social media with videos of highly skilled movement and strength artists, lauding them as shining examples of human achievement.  Then off to the gym we  go, beating ourselves up by doing redundant reps of our same basic-level skills over and over, somehow believing it’s sort of the same thing. Splashing paint all over a canvas until you’re thoroughly spent is not the same league as creating a masterpiece.

‘Functional’ training ruined by dysfunctional programming. Now trending.

I’ve been posting a series of small videos on Facebook that are simple versions of adding some skill practice into your training on a level most folks who have even a modicum of movement perception can attempt… and yet, many folks who have spent a great deal of time chasing exhaustion have a hard time with some of these.


Repeating Preschool Doesn’t get you into High School

Some folks took offense to part 2 of this series in regards to high rep muscle ups. Let’s expand on those thoughts. The muscle up is kindergarten ring work, and it has one purpose… to get up on the rings to do other things. Maybe continually practicing to get up on the rings is time better spent actually pursuing the next round of skills. You can do a few in a row? Time to graduate. Now you’re up there… what can you do? Adding more and more to that set of muscle ups is not building any more skill, its chasing exhaustion. Doing more for the only outcome of getting tired doing that one thing. You can call it ‘power output’ or ‘work capacity,’ but really, you’re just repeating a lower level skill to beat yourself up. That’s time wasted.

Hanging play time

Hanging play time

If we’re aiming for increased skill (which I thought we all agreed upon as our goal), then the hierarchy of climbing up on stuff might go something like this. Can ya hang from a bar? Groovy. You’re a climbing toddler. Can ya do some pull-ups? Superb, you’re in climbing preschool. That muscle up puts you in climbing kindergarten, and then there are a host of things that you can do once you’re up there to work yourself up to the higher levels of elementary school of getting up on, and then over, stuff.

But increasing your ability to master preschool or kindergarten sort of seems a bit redundant, doesn’t it? 1 pull-up is a good start, 10 unbroken pull-ups seems a good progression, but 30 pull-ups in a row? Sure… as the outcome of already being a great climber or gymnast, perhaps, but as the outcomenot the goal. Once you work your way up the skill chart, then being able to do 30 pull-ups would be a result of building other more important skills. But having 30 pull-ups AS a goal DOES NOT graduate you any higher up that skill chart. Why repeat preschool? Mastering basic math over and over again doesn’t give you mad algebra skills.

How do we change our current paradigm? That’s coming up in part IV

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