Every year or so (with occasional deviations), I reiterate a rant on gratitude. It goes a little like this…
If we had to give everything back, if the universal plan demanded us to hand over all possessions and start again bare and raw, I would have a very under-impressive load to turn in. What we would be left with, in our stripped down, essential state, is the coveted internal real estate we should perpetually be striving to cultivate. To give and receive from this place, there is no better exchange. All else is superfluous, although possibly entertaining. As a naked, unencumbered soul, give thanks, then, for how well you can fill the world with nothing but you. The caveat to this spiritual nudity is the quick understanding that if you haven’t taken care of yourself, if you don’t have the respect for yourself to care about the condition of your system, which includes your tribes, you greatly limit your choices, possibilities, and gifts.
Naked in front of God, Buddha, Poseidon or Pan, give thanks for the better choices you’ve made and embrace wisdom for choices not yet made.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!! Eat well, be well, do well!!
My book has no foreword. I was too shy to ask anyone else to pen one after rejections from a handful of potentials. This list may or may not have been limited to the cast of Ash Vs The Evil Dead, and the form letter reply from Lucy Lawless on old Xena stationary may or may not have hinted that she didn’t even bother to read my request. Fine. A foreword is simply an ego stroke for the author anyways, and I’ll continue to discount them until my next book, which Bruce Campbell will ask me to publish simply so he can write the foreword for it.
There is, however an Intro. As I have a deep love for reading intros, this one was written with slight (considerable) hesitation. My new book is subtitled A Freethinker’s Guide to Building a Philosophy of Strength, and the intro had to lay down some foundation for this hyperbolic claim of guidance. History will show if I pull it off. Here’s a snippet (and a picture of Scarlet)…
______________________________________________________ The main act now begins with a philosophical doozy explained through the brain of a slow but determined physical culturist who will most undoubtedly frustrate Aristotelian scholars into a dialectic fervor. It begins with my interpretation (some would call it bastardization) of a $2 word.
In his book Contemporary Athletics and Ancient Greek Ideals, Daniel A. Dombrowski waxes professorly about the Greek word hylomorphism, which seems to have a definition along the lines of the higher-self and the lower-self completing each other. Some would say it could mean the physical and metaphysical in an eternal collective, an ideal symbiosis that requires us to let the mind, body, and spirit have a bit more communication between each other than just weekend visits and holiday parties.
If mind/body/spirit reeks a little of self-help, new age-y, naked-dancing-in-the-patchouli circle (like that’s a bad thing), then maybe cognitive/physical/emotional would have a more antiseptic, clinical shine to it that connects you to terra firma a bit better. Same thing, different language.
One way we can all relate to how our humanness is a co-op rather than a Cartesian thought game would be to ponder the phrase “stressed-out.” Is that a mind, body, or spirit phenomenon? I’m sure you nailed it. D) all of the above. You can watch the hylomorphic self in action, although usually spiraling into disunity, through being stressed-out, as the whole unravels into its various parts. Stress-out is an example of how everything is affected, and interacts accordingly, albeit not in a copacetic, appealing way. Now how do we find the inverse of that? I’m going to make the case that our movement and strength journey is a major player in our complete “all-at-once” humanness game, what we often refer to as the Holistic Athlete, although movement ambassador Gregory Dorado uses the term Authentic Body, which I will probably steal and use synonymously throughout this book (I’ll make a case for “holistic” being a good word choice in its pure, unmarketed form, but there is a sheen of cliche to it that makes me like the term “authentic” as a viable replacement).
Joy through embodiment. Strength as tribal. Becoming rather than just existing. Did I lose some of you? I hope not.
______________________ Are You Useful, by Chip Conrad.
Buy it here
This week celebrates the release of the second book to bear my name. The process from concept to print has been an example of what to do only if you’re a bit of a moron. This book was extreme DIY. The cover, the typesetting, the publishing, the promotion, and of course, the writing, were all by my hand. Thankfully a very kind soul stepped up to editing duties, curbing my diatribes, calming my vitriol, and conjugating my adjectives, all making the book considerably more readable. I’m in forever in debt to Jennifer Bryan for not only finding most of my spelling mistakes, but showing me, in the most inspiring, polite way, how terrible my foundational writing skills are. Consulting her was the wisest choice I made in this entire process. The early, pre-Jennifer drafts were crazed rambles, like Kerouac interpreted by your 3-year old cousin hopped up on too many juice boxes. Jennifer’s painstaking task went from fixing grammar to rehabbing my writing. For the record, she’s also great at cartwheels.
Any typos still lingering in the book are not her fault. The rewriting and expanding I did post-Jennifer edits put all those mistakes in there. (Quick secret… I left two typos in there. On purpose. Blatant grammatical things. No awards for finding them, though. The inspiration came from pre-google map makers. They put a calculated mistake or two in their maps, originally to catch forgers, but eventually these conscious blemishes became artistic trademarks.)
Look. We’re told by every major religion, and TV series based on Marvel comics, that love is suffering (or am I reading that wrong?). I apparently had need to experience that to the fullest. Having zero budget meant reaching out a bit for help. And that meant being let down considerably, therefore relying on myself for most of the technical stuff that I previously (and currently, if we’re honest), haven’t developed much skill in. The lesson here is, if you’re aiming for quality, be sure to spend money. Don’t worry, you probably won’t make it back. Since love hurts, consider yourself in a growing, bountiful relationship of financial loss.
Since I had no money to spend, things took a bit longer.
Thankfully, I’m blessed with a very supportive tribe, who, if not affluent in the traditional sense, sure have given freely of what they did have. Although it’s been a tough ride for the brain and soul, my heart has felt a security that inspires me to pay as much forward as possible. Thanks to the collection of folks who made this potentially bumpy ride a far less daunting rollercoaster than it would’ve been otherwise. To you I owe plenty.
There’s a chapter in the new book about finding inspiration from someone obviously new to their journey, implying that we should dole out kudos as much, if not more, to the challenge of the beginner, which is less comfortable, more frightening, and sometimes stinkier, than the expertise of the veteran. Although this book is written for the veteran (gym rat, in this case), the reminder is constant that we are ambassadors for the deeper purposes of movement and strength. We have a responsibility to our tribes, to teach, to help, and to celebrate with. Your training experience changes when the outcome is bigger than yourself.
Spoiler: the current fitness industrial complex is failing quite gloriously at providing any real journey.
This book is a collection of ideas and tools that are building blocks for designing dialogs, both personally and communally, about our relationships with our bodies. In the past, my rants have built into fire and lightning, but here the goal is less bear-poking, more thought provoking. Unlike the hard-and-fast laws sold by the how-to faction of the training world, here we’ll explore the Why behind the What and How. This is the my attempt at opening that door. I might step on a sacred cow or two along the way, but it’s only because our dogmas need questioning.
The big take-away: What if your training practice isn’t just about you anymore? This book is the outcome of many workshops and videos that have transformed quite a few lives so far. Care to give this stuff some thought?
Let’s begin with a premise. Our goal in the gym is to make a better version of ourselves, or if we’re one of these fancy fitness professional folks, maybe our clients. If we can agree on this, perhaps we can agree on a foundation for programming. To achieve this upgraded human status, our training should enable better movement, which empowers greater strength.
To create a better us, our training is about skill building.
I’m guessing, if you’re reading this, you’re probably on board, just like the groovy, enlightened attendees of my workshops, who nod their heads vigorously, occasionally raising me up on their shoulders to loud cheers of Huzzah! (It could happen).
When we scrutinize the output of the Fitness Industrial Complex, though, we’ll see a contrary story, usually manifested as reduced movement programming and more distraction than actual strength building. The industry’s words say one thing, their actions another. As a species, we’re increasingly masterful at lying to ourselves. The fitness culture is one of many outlets for our personal dishonesty.
Let’s remember the premise above. Enable better movement to empower greater strength, all as a foundation of building skills. Some version of this message is trumpeted enough on websites, blogs, and our instatubefacegram posts that we have made the shaky correlation that gym=improvement. Period. Do the gym. Be the superhero. No questions asked… or at least honestly answered.
What if we get specific? Let’s pick an example of a modern gym program staple and ask how it makes us better. Like, really. For reals.
Try this. Flop to the ground. Just go ahead and bend over and then fall flat. And then writhe your way back up by flexing and extending your passive spine in positions that would get you kicked out of yoga kindergarten. Maybe add a little jump once you’re up. Land and repeat. Again. And again (and again). As fast as you can.
Now come up with a case of how that is building any skill. How would this flop-and-writhe support our premise goal?
It won’t. Which means we’re lying to ourselves every time we toss modern burpees into the daily exercise stew.
I know my attack on the poorly performed modern burpee, which we’ll henceforth call a Sloppee, is old news. We’ve been on this soapbox for a while, but not without reason.
When we work on improving our skills, there is a byproduct of getting tired. Through the course of fitness industrial history, it was deemed easier to sell the byproduct than the actual skill-building journey. We’re now, as a culture, distracted by our belief that getting tired is the goal. Getting tired is somehow the magic path, and the industry currently markets it under another name. Intensity. We seem to understand that intensity is part of the transformation recipe (as we’ve mentioned before), but now we’re offered this great chance to start lying to ourselves. Call it cognitive dissonance, call it brainwashing, or perhaps it is pure ignorance, but our quest for chasing exhaustion completely disregards the true correlation between intensity and getting tired.
If we put in high quality work towards learning skills, we will get tired. If we put in low quality work towards getting tired, we won’t learn any skills. Turning the byproduct (getting tired) into the goal is a failure to our bodies.
A properly executed burpee is a call to athleticism. No, really. It takes two good ol’ foundations of structure and mobility, the plank and the squat, and combines them. Through understanding key components in our movement vocabulary, we attempt to let them seamlessly flow together. Athleticism lives in the transformation of shapes. The burpee lets you practice becoming a performance changeling, morphing from one well executed shape into another, quite different, but no less important, shape.
Zen out on it. A burpee has a chance for movement meditation status, whereas a sloppee has become the slightly traumatizing experience of get-through-this-any-way-possible. Sure, one might pray during a sloppee, but usually to be done. Meanwhile, a burpee can be a little slice of self-reflection. A burpee allows for playfulness and presence. The burpee is not punishment, as movement should never be.
A burpee is also a keen study in intensity, with many lessons about how that word might not mean what you think it means.
Discern any movement, tool, or program through the filter of our premise. Are your practices building skills by enabling better movement, therefore empowering greater strength? Make a good case if you think they are. Be willing to let go of dogma if your case falls apart. Have the goal of being honest with yourself. If you are lying to yourself, what about your clients, peers, and tribe?
Purpose and transformation are life partners. One finishes the other’s sentences. When their eyes met for the first time, they both breathed, “you complete me.” One can’t quit the other. Unless you’re perfect in every way (therefore not needing transformation),your time steeped in that purposeful recess of training is simply the consecration of their union. Well, sorta. Purpose is actually one third of the recipe. But let’s not jump too far ahead. The Recipe for Transformation
That’s it. That’s the alchemy for your transformation. Here’s how it works. Intensity ignites the potential for transformation, as we’ve mentioned in Ritual vs Routine. It is the spark for change. It’s also the focus of the next chunk of this book.
Consistency is simply repeating this ignition until it’s a fire. It perpetuates the change.
Purpose defines the change! This is perhaps the biggest theme of this tome. Not all transformation is good. Random or aimless encounters with intensity have no direction, and therefore the outcome might, well, suck. Even well-intentioned attempts at transformation can be badly programmed, steering the intensity through a series of poor choices, which, as we’ll chat more about, reduce our options and limit our freedom.
We’ve waxed ad nauseum about purpose throughout this blog site, so what needs some serious crime scene investigation is the concept of intensity. What the heck does it mean?
Do Better: The Story of Intensity
Through the omnipresent lens of social media, I’m witness to many prescribed workouts by many trainers and gyms across the world. A great deal of them fall into a theme of do-more-faster, with various workouts prescribing hundreds of reps. One recent example was a workout of 200 air squats/100 KB swings/50 pushups/50 box jumps, then repeat for half of everything, for a grand total of 600 reps. That’s a lot. Yet that’s becoming standard programming. Is there a point? Later we’ll also ask the question: Why would such programmed redundancy be at all appealing to the huge chunk of the population we need to be trying to get moving? Why has movement become regulated, and often celebrated, repetition?
Only a few bits of wisdom will seep through my old, calloused cranium, but a big lesson that has lodged itself in that pink orb between my ears is that quality trumps everything. Why do my athletes improve? They work on doing things better. Since our big journey is the path towards holistic usefulness, then it may behoove us to place a great deal of importance on the carry-over from workout to real life. Hence it is crucial to recognize that quality of life often has a direct correlation with the quality of your training… but less so directly with the quantity.
With that formula for transformation, the magic goop that puts glitter on our unicorn horn is Intensity. When we repeat it (Consistency) and give it direction (Purpose), we’re changed. Simple. Depending on that purpose, we might be one step closer to actually being useful.
This diatribe ain’t new gospel from my pulpit. In fact the premise of BodyTribe is the quest for intensity as a game, and life, changer. Strength is ability. Physically, it’s the ability to overcome obstacles. Metaphysically… well, basically the same thing. Face a challenge and deal with it. As with mastery of anything, we practice it. Our physical training is simply creating challenges and then slapping them around to make them our bitch. Or at least attempting to.
Therein lies a dilemma. Our limited time on this cosmic spinning glitter orb is already rife with challenges. Why would anyone want to create more challenges? Why would we want to purposely put real physical obstacles in our own way, simply to go over them, under them or move them?
Because it is a skill, this obstacle crushing. To improve our skills, we should practice. Frankly, in our quest for humanness, these challenges are what make things interesting. Even fun.
The good news is that we can have a blast doing it. The outcome, says those around us, is, as we mentioned earlier, an increase in our mate-able worth. Oh, and the real big news? There will be ass kicking in the future. Your tribe gains a superhero, if you choose to use your powers for good (and you will… that’s why I like you).
Why is volume not always the answer? Isn’t Volume intense? Hold on, my friends, we’ll be there soon. Sure, all transformation comes from challenge, but not all challenge creates transformation. We call this the classic Coaches Fallacy.
First, what is Intensity?
Don’t Google this one. It won’t quite solve the riddle. I see the strength athletes with their hands up. Calling on one of them would get me an answer about percentage of 1RM. Intensity for them is the all-out kaboom of a max effort lift.
The metcon junkies are going to counter this with a power output proposition. The yoga contingent will pitch a case for focus and awareness.
And yes, someone will make a case for volume. Doing a lot of something feels awfully intense, right?
You are all right, but it’s a math question, and none of you showed your work. Well, metaphysical math, but Intensity is a formula nonetheless.
Intensity = investment X challenge
That’s right. Intensity is the amount of investment times the level of challenge. Simple, right?
Now we’re masters at busy-ness, which is a bunch of investment in unchallenging things. On the other hand, many of us have strangleholds on walking away from giant challenges, maybe after a half-ass effort, what I call the At Least I Tried Syndrome. Those, obviously, fail at being transformative. According to our formula, not much intensity.
The examples of intensity given earlier, though – 1RM, focus, metabolic meltdown – all plug into our equation with a net sum of a high intensity quotient. So yes. Intensity can come from volume. High numbers represent a big challenge, and if met with high investment, your intensity formula will definitely ring in the red zone.
Beware. Not all intensity is the same.
Can intensity be abusive? Heck yes. Its transformative powers can turn metal into gold or shit into a bigger pile of shit. I’ve oft quoted the legendary Tommy Kono as saying practice makes permanent. If you’re finding your intensity through practicing a volume fest of crap, guess what you’re making permanent?
I have detractors. Weird, right? One of them pops up on my Facebook posts on occasion, especially if anything in the discussion seems to, even vaguely, point any finger at his favorite training protocol as something that could be done better. The philosophical banter would be fun, if there was some. But instead the formula follows the I post/he reacts/I elaborate/he disappears model.
But once in a while the post isn’t word driven. It might be a simple video of part of a workout of mine, although these are relatively rare. I’ve done the DVDs and the online show and the how-to vids and the downloadable stuff (which, of course, you should watch). But it is relatively rare to see a quick, basic, today-I-did-this video of mine enter the internet-o-sphere. Fear not. Everyone else seems to be making a lot of them, and probably better than I can. So you’ll still get your fix. But there is another reason they don’t often flow from my practice into the public…
Immediately after I post a snippet video of the aforementioned ilk, the response from said detractor is often “YES! That’s what I love about what you do. Show us more of that!” And strangely, I feel a little icky afterwards.
In this nouveau fitness culture of play and flow, being labeled a dancing monkey would seem complimentary. Even ideal. But the term is pejorative, portraying the concept of obedient servant. And that comment on my post may as well have read ‘dance, monkey, dance.’
I ramble. My pie hole may not be impressive in size or power (like most of me), but in volume, there is a tenacity to it’s ability to wax diatribally (which my spell check says isn’t a word, but it also has a problem with ‘deadlift,’ so what does it know?).
Occasionally there might be something of interest that I do beyond the ranting, usually something movement-based, and suddenly everyone pays attention. The words – the persistent struggle to define our journey, the mining of the metaphysical in a mire of strictly physical (and usually superficial), the questioning of cliches and our relationship to our own ideas (or the lack of them) – these are both the bane and the boon of my passion for this movement and strength stuff, as I’d hate to be tapped on the arm by the reaper and reply ‘wait, I’m not done with this set.’ Then, as he tugs on my sleeve with vehemence, I insipidly realize I wasted huge chunks of my life in the gym instead of using the gym as a tool to actually get OUT of he gym.
So the brain and body jig with the heart in a perpetual meringue of contemplating a little meaning to it all. Perhaps this comes across as crass, when there might be notice of something that doesn’t seem to be meriting the amount of processing in the ol’ noggin that it should, and I happen to call it out. Dogmas get frazzled.
But once in a while, there is the honor of being a conduit for potential. When a door is kicked down by my size 42 Feiyues, every now and then I’m joined by a few other pairs of eyes to explore what’s beyond it. It’s a spiritual joy when I see my own words in a post or a meme (often anonymously quoted, but so what?) put out into the universe (well… interwebular galaxy) by someone I might barely know beyond a ‘like’ or two on Facebook.
And sometimes it cultivates into something a little magical. Maybe a small workshop tour comes together from a few folks who have taken to kicking down similar doors, or at least being there when my heel did the work. My path then connects with a host of other seekers, teaching, and of course learning, all headed to the the top of the same proverbial mountain.
But I’m often reminded that information exchange in this industry of exercise is often less cognitive and far more corporeal. Which, initially, makes sense, but then there lies the major fallacy of this industrial complex.
This industry teaches exercise, but has a hard time exploring movement.
I write and rant and enter a handful of dialogs about movement or exercise as a needed outlet for the non-corporeal part of my hylomorphic self. In other words, I feel we gotta talk this shit out, because there are a big bunch of folks who are lacking purpose in their exercise, and an even bigger bunch who aren’t moving at all. I crave purpose, always attempting to answer the perpetual question: Am I useful?
And there seems to be a giant sucking sound where this sort of banter ought to exist. There is chatter, there is noise, but very little of it moves beyond the Me, Me, look at Me selfie culture. We’re so busy talking about how great we are at working out, we forgot how meaningless that workout probably is in big-picture, wide-angle lens format. You’ve got this amazing program that you bought into… so what?
Point being, I find the philosophy of movement often more important than the demonstration of it, simply because everyone is already talking about the What and the How. What to do and How to do it fills every youtube channel, every magazine, every nook and cranny of the fitness world’s social media. But shit… question the purpose and sometimes hell breaks loose. WHY simply isn’t the thing people wanna talk about.
But no matter how badly we need to be asking Why, we still suffer from Dancing Monkey Syndrome. Most people will suffer my ranting with polite nods, or they’ll get frisky in their disagreement until they run out of steam, but post a video of a groovy little movement creation and the Dancing Monkey Syndrome kicks in. I’ve been brought to gyms in the past so they could simply steal whatever cool new moves I happened to show them, while they gently tolerated my words. I was their dancing monkey. I get it… that’s what we do. Teach exercise. Look at the dancing monkey… then replicate it.
But there is our failure, or at least my lack of understanding. I’m not a particularly skilled athlete, but in most workshops I impart a great deal of new movement ideas to the participants. I’m grateful for this privilege, but I have a caveat. Next time I come through, show me what you’ve done with this information. The movement ideas are simply an expression of my philosophy of exploration and play, how strength in action should look. So when I’m surrounded by a room full of people who can out-workout me, my hope is that I’m offering the artist’s rendering of what the purpose of working out is… the foundation of building skills. I’ll demonstrate what these skills in action might look like, and I’ll talk in length about why a workout is meaningless unless there is a point to it. I’ll look on the surrounding white boards and see all the times and weights posted by members of that gym, and usually rank myself in the bottom half of what I see. And then I show you where your strength might go, what it might look like in action.
I’m not a dancing monkey showing you the newest trick. I’m showing you a philosophy of strength as action. Steal the moves if ya’d like… they weren’t mine to begin with. But what is your journey? I walked many paths, always to bring back the fruits to my own freshly trod quest. You can simply mimic me, or any of the videos from whatever movement mentor you’ve chosen to emulate. But then who is the dancing monkey?
He was a big man. Not the kind of big that comes as the enviable outcome of choices made in the gym. More like his past decisions involved many foods that were probably in plastic wrap and were of colors not entirely natural. He wore these decisions as considerable extra weight. Some of his history was now unwanted aesthetic carriage.
And he become the reason I moved and celebrated movement this weekend. He was my lesson.
He was a true shining example of how training can infect our tribes as a tool of empowerment. I didn’t meet him. I simply overheard and witnessed a few choice words and actions and decided that he was my mentor right now.
He had a son, probably 3 years old. In our short time sharing space (I was behind them in a grocery store line) dad made it very clear that he was now creating a newer, different journey, one that was meant to include, educate and inspire, his son. His personal empowerment will be through his role in empowering this small tribe of family. And from within ear shot I picked up that at least part of it had to do with training, movement, and good food choices (I peaked in his cart, as I do everyone near me in line at the grocery store. Even as I try to reserve judgment, I’m usually disappointed. Not today.).
He had a goal. It was obvious and uplifting. I’m sure superficially it had to do with fat loss and wellness boosting, but those will actually be symptoms of his journey. The actual transformation, the true success, will happen if the scale needle moves a little or a lot. Someone else is involved. Someone else will learn and improve. In his mission, at least two are loved (probably more).
Living for the gym, and using the gym to live are two incredibly different things. He personified how the physical begets the metaphysical. He was, in my definition of the word, strong.
The coveted physical changes of intense movement – strength, shape, performance – are simply adaptations to perpetuate more of it. Movement is the tactile exploration of space. It is knowing where you are, and who you are, through participation.
Or at least that was the purpose for our organic machines. Sure, free will dictates you can do with it as you please, but remember that better choices now mean more choices later. Why not use it for what it was intended?
Where do we start? First, as you’ll hear me repeat at any workshop I present, let’s learn movement before we practice exercise. These days this concept becomes its own packaged category. Call it the primal natural animal trend. We sure do have a hankering for romanticizing simplicity. Or maybe we’re just trying to make a buck.
Anyway, to understand our own movement philosophy, we’re faced with a surprisingly tough challenge:
How simple can we make it?
I’m going to posit that our quest for ability (ya know… strength) means always improving our skills in how to…
* Roll * Crawl * Change Elevation * Pick Stuff Up * Put Stuff Over Our Head * Carry stuff
Answering the question: if there is an obstacle in our way, can we get over it, around it, under it, through it or move it? Let’s start thinking “yes” to all of them. Doesn’t get more ‘primal/natural/animal’ than that.
In reading that list, you might observe a few things. First, if we’ve had any gym experience, we’ve probably put movement ideas to some of these. Pick up stuff? Heck, that’s a deadlift. Putting stuff over our heads? That’s a press. Hold on… we’ll get there.
As you expand your mastering of the foundations, you can graduate to building a repertoire in the Major Skill Chunks we’ve mentioned before. The problem is, in our quest for cool, in our dreams of fame, or simply because we want some throbbing biceps, we often skip the foundations and work on specializing. We all know a handful of skilled athletes or veteran gym rats that are less than capable in some of the basics.
You and your creative head and passionate soul can begin defining what these mean by assigning movements to them. Shucks, you might even come up with your own foundation list. But whether it’s this one, or one of your own, if you don’t have a baseline standard, you’ll struggle for completeness. Which, frankly, might not be a goal, but remember… our purpose here is usefulness.
So the basic BodyTribe template is to teach and perpetuate these foundations, which always feed the Major Skill Chunks.
Setting the lowest bar, and then raising it
In programming, we often set benchmarks… be able to squat double bodyweight or toss a baby 100 feet or punch through a walrus hide with your pinkie. A good observer might see correlations between certain benchmarks and a general increase in potential. Dan John says if a woman can deadlift 275 pounds, the performance world opens up to her, for instance.
But building a foundation means defining what the base will be before we ever begin to dream of what the advanced benchmarks are. So to simplify all this, decide what you believe foundation skills are, or borrow mine above. Yup. For free. No certification required.
If you’re a trainer, this means asking yourself what everyone in your tribe should be able to do and continuing to improve upon. Then decide what the lowest foundation is that you’ll accept. In other words, what should everyone in your tribe, no matter what, be able to do? This isn’t an entrance exam, though. It simply means if they’re not there, you, as their movement sherpa, have some work to do.
Then you can build levels. If they can do the foundation skills at level A, how about B? You might discover that some folks can level F a certain skill all day, will being barely proficient at a level B of another skill. Guess where their weak points are? Which is why, surprisingly, you might find it isn’t always the beginners you have to worry about. Specialized athletes often skip this basic foundation concept for something more shiny, like a bigger clean and jerk or higher Girevoy Sport numbers, while bypassing some basic skills in the process. This leads to unbalanced potential.
So we’ve mentioned the Foundation Skills. Here I’ll explain them and then offer what we believe level 1 should be:
Roll: This means ya have a basic knowledge of engaging the ground. This is surprisingly hard for even advanced athletes who haven’t played this way in a while. Level 1: just a simple backwards and forwards cradle roll, holding onto the knees.
Crawl: Being able to move on all fours. Level 1: an actual crawl on the hands an knees.
Change elevation: Go up and down. The level 1 standard here is to be able to get up and down off the floor, get in and out of a chair, get up and down from a 36″ plinth or box (not jumping, just getting on and off it), and a good 30 second hang from a bar.
Pick something up: This is the skill of picking something up (what did you expect?). Level one: be able to pick something up. In this case, weight doesn’t enter the equation with any importance. Simply knowing the proper mechanics is the goal. If you ever watch powerlifting competitions, you may notice many have skipped level one, letting the weight on the bar trump useable skill. Oops.
Put something over head: Now the first thought you may have is ‘overhead press.’ Sure, but for a big chunk of our society (both fit and unfit) they lack the correct shoulder and back prowess (be it weakness or tightness) to pull this off safely. So other options like club work might be more appropriate for level 1.
Carry something: This sounds pretty basic… and it is. For you geeks who bore your clients to tears, this is loaded terra-based upright biomobile kinetics(tm). Heck, just be well versed in all the potential ways to actually carry stuff. The foundation of this is to have at least one option under the belt.
Always continuing to grow in proficiency in these will add to our Major Skill Chunks, and skipping any of these will be a noticeable gap in overall ability.
Now you’ve probably already begun assigning movements to this list. Pick something up? That’s a deadlift, you say! You wouldn’t be wrong. Now your next goal is to choose the movements you feel best represents each foundation. So many choices! Get moving. Are you a collection of exercises, or are your movements actually improving your skills. Ya know, the ones that make the 23 hours a day outside the gym considerably better.
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.
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. 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:
An 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.
And 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.”
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
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 outcome… not 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
Matt Wichlinski teaching at Mental Meat Heads 1 in Alabama
Matt Wichlinski and I were Skyping about strength one day (as such geeks do) and we quickly realized we had the exact same definition for Strength. If you’ve kept up with my blog over the decade+ it’s been around (heck, it began as a series of posts on a Bodytribe Yahoo group over 14 years ago), you might already be quick to shout out that strength = ABILITY!
In fact, it is easy to come to an agreement with trainers (coaches, whatever) that training is our tool to get good at stuff. Ya know… building skills.
The biggest skill folks seem to be building in the gym is the ability to workout. There is no guarantee that anything you do in the gym transfers to that big chunk of life beyond the gym. That actually has be an important component of your programming. Yep, that’s right. You have to program potential strength into actual strength. And, from the observations from these cheap seats where my butt dwells, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of that.
All the pulls, ups, downs, pushes, snaps, boings and kabooms we do in the gym are simply to create potential. Programming will decide the degree of usefulness, the amount of transfer, that potential has. Here’s a quick example…
A burpee. As I’ve often described, a burpee can be done as a floppy mess or it can be a well-tuned production between two major body alignments we call ‘shapes.’ Understanding and practicing the shape model will create an awareness, and a potential for embodiment, that has an easy transfer to other aspects of movement and athleticism, even if the numbers are small. The spasming worm style, on the other hand, has about as much potential for furthering other skills as learning to dance by watching John Hughes films. And adding more icky reps is, as mentioned many times before, practicing slop. Since practice makes permanent, where ya at here?
It doesn’t take a giant leap to see how your training might not actually help your ability to take a giant leap. Does an 800 pound squatter instantly have mad skills at the other foundations of movement? That squatter has probably taken his training beyond the point of usefulness, choosing instead to create potential in one thing. Standing up with a heavy bar on his back.
Irma squats 300 at a bodyweight of roughly 130. What else can she do? Her perpetual quest is to find out.
If strength is ability, he is actually fairly limited in his strength, whereas a 500 pound squatter who hasn’t squandered his time on an all-squat diet, but instead uses that squat as simply a tool for building potential at other strengths/skills, could be considered less limited in his strength. If we sum up our potential as usefulness, then the ‘weaker’ squatter would have more potential, therefore being more useful. More skilled. More able. In other words, stronger.
Let’s continue this game. A muscle-up is preschool for gymnasts. Sure, pretty challenging for mere mortals, but considered a very basic skill that is meant for one thing: To get up on something so you can then DO OTHER THINGS. Get up on bars or rings, so you can then create a greater movement palette. So once you have the ability to do a few, if you’re going to increase potential, ask yourself what’s next? The answer is not DO MORE OF THEM FASTER! Why? What potential are you building? Once ya got a handful under your belt, graduate. Move on. That’s their purpose as a movement… to get you to the BEGINNING of something. Turning the muscle-up into a high rep workout, or better yet, part of a sport, is like being a 8 year old in preschool. You’ve mastered step one into the ground. You’ve made a sport of the warm up from another sport. You’ve sucked the potential right out of it by giving it more importance than it should have. That’s an interesting programming decision to make.
We could play this game all day. Box jumps? Not as much a skill you need to build as it is an outcome from other skills. Getting good at high rep box jumps doesn’t make you particularly good at much else, while training other more potential-building skills will actually make you a pretty bad-ass box jumper. Anyone see the video of olympic weightlifters hopping up onto giant stacks of bumper plates almost as tall as they are? Don’t think for a minute they got there by practicing tons of box jumps. That’s an outcome of their potential, not the actual skill itself.
I know, I know, you’re using box jumps as a conditioning tool, as a movement to build the skill of fighting fatigue. Who cares if it, in itself, is a skill worth building?
Aren’t there better choices? I bet you could find them, and your client’s shins (and morale) would appreciate it.
I get it. You covet power output as a skill. And it is, in fact, a pretty useful one. But the point of power output is to create a potential foundation of stamina to then be able to practice and improve OTHER SKILLS. It, in itself, isn’t the key to potential. So when we reduce the potential of other skills by creating high rep, low load, speedy versions of them in the name of power output, we’re actually reducing the potential of our programming.
Here be some maths and some truths that might not agree with the maths…
Power output is measured by work over time. Do a bunch fast. Let’s take a famous example. In the CrossFit world, she’s called Fran.
If ya don’t know, Fran is a workout consisting of the following: Squat presses (called Thrusters in the CF world) and pull ups (and, let’s face it, for most these will be kip ups). With a rep scheme of 21/15/9, as fast as ya can.
Although the barbell is set at 95 pounds for men, let’s round up the weight to 100 pounds, just to make this math easy. A decent Fran time is under 4 minutes, so 45 total reps at 100 pounds would be 4,500 pounds of work completed for that task. Qualifying the pull up is harder… let’s just use bodyweight of the person, in this case a 200 pounder, so 9000 pounds of pull up work. All done in 4 minutes, for this example.
So, to sum up, example 1:
4,500 pounds of thrusters
9,000 pounds of pull ups
all done in 4 minutes.
What if we doubled the load of the thruster? And simply changed the pull up by enforcing that it be strict? And we reduced the reps to 10/7/4. Here’s the maths:
4,100 pounds of thrusters.
4,100 pounds of pull ups… and they went slower.
In fact the whole thing takes 5 minutes.
So far, by formula, the power output is considerably lower.
I nominate Kalle Beck for the 400 pound squat press at under 200 pounds of bodyweight.
But let’s double the load again for the thrusters. Yup, a 400-pound thruster. And we’ll add 100 pounds to the pull up by hanging weight from our fictional character. Yet this isn’t far from reality. I’ve known at least a couple of folks who could probably pull this off at 200 pounds of bodyweight. Now let’s reduce their reps to 4/3/2.
Total pounds of thrusters: 3,600
Total pounds of pullups: 2,700
Let’s say it went slightly speedier, back to 4 minutes. That would still be a slow, much worse performance, according to the power output model.
Yet who would you you want on your team? To save your family from a hurricane? Heck, to hang out with as a person? The guy with the greatest potential here would be the final example, and if you see otherwise, remind me not to pick you for my dodgeball league.
See it this way: who can become the other the easiest? Guy number three can become guy number 1 easily. But guy number 1 has a heck of a lot of work to do to reach even Guy #2’s status. So why would we put the majority of our training into a lower outcome of potential? Why would we train primarily like Guy #1 if we see that Guy #3 is more of an ideal of potential? Guy #3 sure didn’t get that way by following Guy #1’s programming.
In part 4 of this (coming soon… make sure to read part 3 now), we’ll start outlining a template for programming greater potential.