Chasing Exhaustion (Excerpts from Are You Useful?)

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(As I work on digitizing my new book, certain chunks of it will make their way into this blog. If you can’t wait for the digital version, feel free to get your hands on the analog version, complete with pages and a cover, here. This post is chunks from Chapter 16, Are You Happy?)

book cover 2
Practice makes PERMANENT.

If your gym life is the extent of your movement life, you’ve become a full-blown adult. There is no congratulations attached to this fact, since, frankly, you’re biding your time. The one purpose of your body, how your hylomorphic package finds joy and success, is movement, and you’ve relegated it to a job, a chore. All fun stripped out of it as it becomes a tick on your checklist.

Let’s remember joy. All the other movement choices we can make, from dance to sport to recreational adventure to stuff reserved for behind closed doors, is all about the quest for joy. Deeply satisfying movement. Not only do we often forget about these never ending options, but we reduce our movement choices to the walls of a gym, to the categories of the fitness industry, to the adult-brained version of fitness.

Movement should be a gateway drug, an exponential philosophy where one choice begets many more. Darn our adult brains and the control they want to have over our bodies.

Let’s chat a bit about how we sabotage our movement potential through physical and philosophical mythologies the brain has created about movement and exercise, and how to free ourselves from them.

Chasing Exhaustion
I don’t care how you workout near as much as 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 burpee-ups and 100 bend-and-snaps and 200 kegal-outs. This trend seems to indicate the only skill anyone wants to improve is their ability to work out harder.

In 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. Maybe they’d bootcamp me right into the ground. In the our workshop, though, I’ll spend the next 2-5 hours showing them what they can’t do, or at least what they could do better, simply by implementing strict foundations of proper movement into their exercise choices. Most importantly, they’ll learn how to take that gym stuff and go get a life with it. 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’s not acquired just by 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. We could find 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 not only to 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.

I’ve already mentioned how, as a trend, this training modality has gone awry. The fad now is 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.

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

An extreme exhaustion chaser, we’ll call him David Lee Roth[1], 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 day 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 outlets for AMRAPs and buy-ins and EMOMs (yep, if you’re new to this, bust out your Trendy-Workout-to-English dictionary now. Actually, nah, don’t bother.), and the hundreds of reps and rounds he routinely attacks. Chasing exhaustion is a big part of his identity.

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

I don’t produce the greatest mega-workout for him to try, nor am I any kind of super athlete with mad skills to show off. I just offer some playtime, and playtime actually requires some basic movement skills that aren’t taught much, or don’t even seem to be coveted, in our live-to-workout industry. Nothing in his WODtastic, ‘functional’ training actually gave him the skills to just move and play. He can sweat circles around me (he actually competes in this stuff), but he hasn’t built too many 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.

  1. 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 have treated their movement journeys as struggle fests. Many folks with this specific personality trait 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, we have a growing culture of perpetuation of this tweaked idea of body relations, and the modern gym culture is not helping. In fact we celebrate it. From screwed up ideals like websites called Live Sore[2] to the popular pump up vernacular strewn with clichés like Extreme or 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 the dual edge of the battle axe that is the internet helps build a bigger community while also perpetuating the flaws that ultimately can destroy our world wide tribe. In the case of our current topic, social media allows us to mistake chasing exhaustion for skill building. We smear our facetubestagram with videos of highly skilled movement and strength artists, lauding them as shining examples of human achievement.  Yes. Yes they are. They might even be a delicious part of our inspiration breakfast.

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.


[1] No, not his real name. But in surprising rockstar trivia twist: it is David Lee Roth’s real name.

[2] A friend wondered why a website would celebrate an open wound. He thought it was pronounced “live’ as in ‘a live studio audience.’

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  • Merchelle Gilliam

    Thank you.

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