Programming Strength, part IV: What the heck are the Foundations of Strength?

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
* Move To and Fro
* 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.

not hardcore, just lucky... possibly the heaviest stone I ever lifted.

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.

bridget deadlift1 bwYou 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.

acro 1So 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:

sandbag gino 1bwRoll: 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.

Move to and fro: This sounds pretty basic… and it is. For you geeks who bore your clients to tears, this is terra-based upright biomobile kinetics. And yeah, don’t tell anyone I totally made that up. Level 1: Can ya walk backwards, sideways and forwards, and push a light sled? Then we graduate to shuffling, skipping, hopping and and dashing.

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: Yes, pretty self explanatory, but do 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.

windmills valeris jason 1bwAlways 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 improving your Major Skill Chunks?

We’ll talk about our actual programming template in the next post. Meanwhile, read more about the concept of the Major Skill Chunks here.

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Programming Strength, Part 3: Chasing Exhaustion

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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 WOD 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 gm 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. 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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Programming Strength, Part II: Potential Versus Actual Strength

 

Matt Wichlinski teaching at Mental Meat Heads 1 in Alabama

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.

And yet…

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.

bham C 10All 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.

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 christopher 4you’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.bham E 5

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.

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.

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Programming Strength, part 1: Organic versus Inorganic machines

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Organic Machines vs Manufactured Machines

If some of your life choices include imposing force on other folks, you might either be a dictator or a trainer. Although dictators seem to spring up with an odd (and frightening) ubiquity around the world, they’re numbers are dwarfed by the fitness mitosis that seems to create trainers in vast numbers, all duplicates of each other. The titles might differ… personal trainer, coach, strength and conditioning specialist, and good intentions might have started everyone on their chosen path. But subjecting another human to possibly dangerous forces should have a few more requirements than personality and good intentions.

In fact, the dubious job of changing lives through movement could be quartered into sections of equal importance:

Technique
Program Design
Personality
Purpose.

These are not reserved traits for just trainers, but anyone wanting to pursue the strength arts to any degree. Here’s a minor run down of each category…

Not a squat gone bad, but a Steinborn Lift gone good

Not a squat gone bad, but a Steinborn Lift gone good

Technique: the How. Short term considerations: the safest, most effective goal oriented movement. Not always “efficient”. Long term thoughts: longevity of body. In other words… do shit right or suffer the consequences. Maybe not today, but give it time, my friend… give it time.

Program Design: The What. Goal oriented movement selection and execution. What path is going to provide to best outcome?

Personality: The Who. Motivation, support, leadership. The personality might show itself in the vibrancy and enthusiasm of an entire community, yelling about the beauty in their particular brand of pain, or it might be the volume of a single person, so loud that it strips you of any need to think for yourself.

Purpose: The WHY! The big missing component in a great deal of modern training.

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Today let’s chat about Program Design.

We’re born with potential. This is what separates us from the other fauna on the planet, and that ain’t meant as a boost to the esteem of our species. Other animals meet their potential through preset software. We’re factory installed with only a blank map, an empty guidebook and a big machete, and if your tribe does its job of lurnin’ ya right, then you’ll end up pretty darn skilled at using that machete to chop through the jungle of bullshit.

We’re manufactured from some DNA that demands a gallon or so of blood, sweat, toil, tears, terror and tenacity to gleam to most out of our flesh packets. We’re machines of a special type. Organic, biological. Not quite the perfect movers that some of the recent training protocols are hoping we are. In other words, we are not built for many of the workouts our bodies are put through, at least not without some serious practice and training. The high rep workload trend seems to forget something crucial, a little point that Tommy Kono likes to drill into our heads every time he visits:

Practice makes PERMANENT.

tommy kono 1

The legend himself. We’re blessed every year to have him come and impart his 60+ years of training and lifting knowledge on us.

I’ve been as guilty as the next gym for being cutesy with creating themed workouts, but I can’t keep up with the true artists of mayhem.  My social media feed is littered with concepts like a 50 Shades of WOD workout that has 50 reps of 12 different exercises It’s usually the common popular culprits of wall balls, pushups, air squats, etc… the standard CrossFit arsenal that has infiltrated so many programs.

get up caroline 3This may be heretical thinking, but I very rarely need to know that my athletes can do 50 of almost anything.  In all the workshops I’ve taught, even to big rooms of trainers, I’ve seen what 10 pushups looks like to the vast majority of people. I can only imagine what 50 will do. Add burpees to that mix, and it’s Slop Fest 2015.

That 50 rep set of pushups might see a handful of something that might be called a pushup towards the beginning… maybe, just maybe 10 do actually look good. Then the next 40 might turn into slop, just because you’re under the clock and gotta do those 50 with the goal of speed trumping all else. This isn’t program design. 10 pushups that might help the body, and 40 that suck… a 400% practice of slop.

Practice makes permanent… guess what you’re practicing?

barbells made of people!

barbells made of people!

Add a barbell to this type of party and things have an even greater chance of going wonky. If the goal is to build skill, which we’ll yammer on about in great detail in the rest of this series, then it seems that yanking the bar from the ground to your chest  30+ times in a row must make you better at something. But what? It will have no real chance of making you a more skilled Olympic lifter. In fact maybe we shouldn’t even compare it to olympic lifting technique. It’s a new beast, and the impact on your organic machine might demand questioning as to why you’re doing it.

Workload is not technique practice. But now that workload and power output have trumped maximum force/skill development as the ruler of the programing kingdom, then our organic machines are falling victim to this backwards trend. Power output is a support player to a bigger picture. It IS a skill, it just isn’t THE skill. Creating entire programs based on doing more, faster miss the entire point. In fact, they’re backwards.

Backwards? Yup. Strength trickles down. Having a solid base of maximum force development (MFD) transfers greater to skills and skill chunks. That is the foundation we should build on, and bringing up our work capacity and power output is simply a tool to utilize that max force development better. Power output (GPP, Metcon, etc) is simply applying our ability to generate force on a broader scale. It also helps us sustain a larger training schedule to get towards those increases in max force development.

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Sometimes it’s organic machine versus manufactured machine. In this case, Sonya wins.

In other words, power output supports MFD. It is a helper in a cycle of generating greater force. It is not THE foundation of a program, but a tool to help support what should be the foundation, which is MFD. And to generate maximum force properly, ya might wanna work on technique. In fact MFD is interchangeable with Maximum Skill Development, since perfecting an important foundation skill requires, well, MFD (but we’ll talk about this more later in this series).

An athlete with mad skills in MFD will be able to train down the spectrum of strength into high rep workload training far easier than the opposite. You can make a quality Oly lifter good at CF or endurance feats faster than going the other direction.

Point being there is more to program design than workload, but so many of the trends in physical culture right now seem bent on more, faster. Not more, BETTER, which has been the fool-proof plan of the truly strong for centuries before hand. The body likes a good challenge. Good as in quality. There can be volume only if the quality is maintained. Otherwise it’s anti-fitness. Anti-skillful.

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Building and Breaking the Machine

A manufactured machine is ready for it’s purpose once it leaves the factory floor. Rev that sucker up and expect horsepower. That’s its reason for existing and modern technology lets us create it so it can do its thang fresh out of the box.

We’re not that machine. Our organic nature means we’re a machine that builds itself. If we skip this building process, we will break. But we have something in common with the manufactured machine. That little characteristic of a flaw perpetuating itself. If a machine begets a minor change in its structure that even ever so slightly changes the original plan of its movement, this will lead to wear and cause big problems eventually. In other words, anything that changes the correct process of the machine, no matter how small, will make a big mess at some point.

jake rope 1As an organic appliance, not only might your physical systems not yet be up for huge horsepower tasks, you might not even have the benefit of being programed with the right idea of what movement should be, especially if the workload demand is high. High rep-for-speed training, especially for a beginner who never learns anything different, can easily skip the steps of embodiment. Doing MORE will actually shut down the communication between mind and body. It becomes trauma control time, and the mind switches to ‘just get through this anyway possible, ‘ which are never buy-words for quality. The body, or mind, doesn’t learn the movements. The dialog has ended and the workout has actually become a greater stress on the body than previously existed.

Plus, the chances of your biological packaging acquiring a misfire in its performance is way beyond that of a manufactured machine… heck, it’s almost mandatory. And the consequences are a bit more dire. Our machines, pretty amazing regardless, need programming and practice to be the best machines they can be. Remember that next time you feel like attempting a high rep-for-speed workout. Do you truly know the movements? Are you built and programmed for it yet? And, most importantly, is there a good reason for doing it?

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A post workshop tree climb. Organic machines playing organically.

 

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How the Fitness Industry Fails and What We Can Do About It

crossing on log

I admit to having a bias in believing that everyone had access to proper movement education. But my travels and wanderings, which find me teaching (and learning!) all over this country, have made blatant a strong truth. With just a quick glance, it is easy to see how the fitness industrial complex is actually failing in it’s recruitment program, if there could be a case that such a program exists. All I needed for proof at this failure was to spend time with my family.

My brilliant, wonderful kin are part of the 85% of our society that is not involved in movement culture to any degree. So the usual online offerings of, oh, just about any website or video channel (including my own) isn’t going to do much to help them begin their journey. The fitness industry as a whole has no proper welcome wagon, instead believing that shiny new toys or flashy programs are the answer to recruiting the non-movers. Nope. Not quite.

This isn’t news, if you’ve paid any attention to these blog posts (and I don’t blame you if you haven’t). I’ve rambled in length about it. 

A recent play workshop, working on freedom and embodiment through movement. It's no ore silly than picking up heavy stuff, only to put it back down again.

A recent play workshop, working on freedom and embodiment through movement. It’s no more silly than picking up heavy stuff, only to put it back down again.

First, we screw things up by thinking that movement and exercise are synonymous. Exercise is simply movement as a task towards a reward. And therein lies the problem. Our society, which thrives on being as busy as possible (which is not synonymous with productive, but sure looks the part), sinks a lot of faith into this system of sacrifice. Life becomes a simple, yet busy, system of sacrifice and reward, and movement should be no different. Hence we believe that the rewards from movement must only come through struggle and suffering, just like everything else. Fun just isn’t part of the equation.

No wonder, as a culture, we abhor exercise.

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Yeah, yeah, ya still get to lift heavy stuff. Strength is the crucial foundation for movement culture. It just has more faces than we are currently teaching.

So in a small attempt to begin the process of change, I’ve embarked on another video series. This one was inspired by my family and answering their questions about how to approach movement again after substantial periods of time not embracing it. But since trainers and coaches are so busy teaching exercise that they skip teaching movement, this ‘movement introduction’ is not just for beginners to enjoy freedom of movement again. This is also a blueprint for the 15% who are busy exercising already. Ironic, but lovin’ it.

Yup, the fitness industry is actually pretty poor at teaching movement, period. Not just to beginners.

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My friends at CrossFit Bezel in Virginia are delving into more ways to embrace movement. It was an honor teaching there on a recent workshop tour.

This new video series is about sharing thoughts and ideas for that important part of the 85% who share blood or marriage ties with me. And, of course, it is an open invitation to anyone who finds the fitness industry not quite offering what they’re looking for.

Below is the intro video to this series, meaning it’s a bit long. They get shorter and more specific from here, promise. But I’ve got things to say… you know me.

We really do need to trash this entire industry and start over. This is my small attempt so far. Some basic guidelines of foundation skills that can grow into a thriving movement practice. So here’s a call out to trainers and coaches: please stop feeding the machine, that broken process of just teaching exercise. Find the joy in being a guide through someone’s movement discovery.

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Age and the Holistic Athlete

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Movement is good, but sometimes ‘training’ isn’t. The brain invented training. The brain conceived the workout. The brain created this thing called exercise, and all the various categories it goes by (and all the various cliches it thrives on). The body has no idea what these things are. It just wants to move. This is where the body knows better than the brain. Are we listening?
I’m officially in my mid-forties (44-46, if you’re keeping track), graduating from my early forties (41-43), and steamrolling towards my late 40’s (47-49). August, as my birthday month, has traditionally also been my competition season, as in the last 13 or so years I’ve decided to take gravity to the mat and enter some weightlifting or powerlifting meets to celebrate the new signifier in our human dance of chronology (this August also saw me in my second strongman meet of the year). And every year I strive for another kilo or two on the bar, and so far, I’ve been successful.

me jerk compNow this flies in the face of our accepted idea of aging, which seems to promote a ‘slow down and die already’ concept of accruing more years in the calendar bank. It begins with our culture’s craving for peaking in our 20s, having all of our possible athletic prowess out of the way by the time we pass the quarter century mark. Our sports-centric, win-at-all-costs ‘play’ system desires our warriors to be their best before they’ve even experienced much of what the world offers. Too many stories have crossed my ears that began with “in college I…”

Then the downhill ride begins… and is supposed to continue in momentum for the next 40-80 years.  At this point I should have at least 19 years of declining shimmer. Decay and rust should already have quite a hold on my joints, and atrophy is the only acceptable outcome for these ancient muscles.

These are the rules, and I am told them regularly with a vehemence that is almost holy. But there is one thing we tend to forget a bit too easily…

handstand art park 1There are so many possibilities at movement that we can spend our entire lives learning something new every single day, therefore never ‘peaking.’ Feel free to pick something to groove on for a while, but remember that there are so many options that our curiosity could be constantly tickled. We never need to Peak as a human unit. We never need to stare at upcoming chunk of years as a perpetual rot of the system. In fact, that’s kind of sick. We’re the only mammal that limits itself like that. My 12 year old cat is well past middle age, yet no one told him he’s supposed to retire from being a moving, exploring creature. Aging is a mind game far before it is physical, and all other animals seem to know this except us. Infinite wisdom be damned.

snatch night 14bwAdding a kilo here and there (this year a snatch PR and a would be clean and jerk PR, if the judges all agreed in my favor… which two of them didn’t) allows me to keep my chops sharp (an almost archaic turn of phrase these days). But the Olympic lifts are simply part of the foundation of my movement skills. If ya know a thing or two about my programming, they are simply catalysts for other skill training, allowing me to have some power and umph to put towards, well, anything I want. Remember… unlimited possibilities.

Did you know I suck at swimming? I mentioned my semi-fatal samba with H2O in an older post, and since then, water and I have had a passionate, but strained, relationship (a common theme in my life). Water and I are far from strangers, as I’ve been participating in it’s pleasures forever, from snorkeling to cliff diving. But these can all be deceptions, faked competency in the water. They require little swimming ability. Really. So my comfort level in the drink is limited to things that require either unlimited floating (snorkeling) or a quick in-and-out (diving). Covering distance with any speed has led to some interesting scenarios, usually soul-crushing panic attacks only witnessed by very few unlucky folks. Last year I barely made it out to an island in the river and back without finding, and then changing, religions several times, and in the words of Justin Sullivan, praying to any god that would come.

me frog lake 1This year I’ve been to the island several times. I’ve been swimming daily, mostly using the flaying breast stroke technique. I look like a drunk, legless moose trying to paddle with wings, but where I am not yet perfecting technique, I am overcoming fear. I am calm in the water. Still not great for distance, but better. That was my biggest movement gift to myself this year. And I’m far from peaking, and even farther from declining.

Here’s a lesson. It takes less work, if directed properly, to continue steady progress than ya might think. If tomorrow means better than today, striving for huge leaps and bounds sets you up for a mountain that will be too tall to climb eventually. Sure, I preach Better trumps More, and it gets trumpeted all over social media when I mention it, but it surprises me at how few apply the idea.

park planche 1Training is the organization of movement into a system for progress. This is where brain and body can learn from each other to create the best path. Brain listens to body’s wants and needs and then uses it’s calculating intelligence to create a path of physical education. Learning through moving and learning while moving and moving to learn. This is also why a ‘program’ of randomization makes little sense in a grand scheme of things.

Physical education. It’s not your high school PE class.

me stone pile 1But this is also why training and movement are not synonymous. At 44 years old, I can impress party goers with a few movement tricks, and can compete on a semi-competent level in various forms of strength athletics. And I get better at these things every year, adding more tricks to my palette and more pounds on the bar. I can play harder now than I could 10, 15 or 20 years ago. Not because I’m a super amazing athlete. Far from it. In fact, it was being a skinny-ass book worm musician in my early 20s, sort of an anti-athlete, that helped me avoid planned obsolescence of my physical abilities. I didn’t peak young and am making a conscious effort to never do so.

Don’t read this as ‘do not progress.’ I think we’ve made a case for progression and peaking being two different things.

We’re a smart bunch. Why do we either peak young, or have to re-introduce movement back into our lives after avoiding it for many years since we were children? How about a middle ground, where we continue to embrace child-like play, that curious, exploratory passion for movement, into the years where we’re told to chose between two movement options: either play sports (oh, and win, win, win), or quit being childish and therefore stop moving entirely.

Go ahead, talk among yourselves. What would a good middle ground be? How do we promote movement as a lifetime of progress, creativity and education?

me log press 2Let’s overturn the current construct of movement-as-exercise. The embodied athlete knows that the journey trumps the outcomethat the big picture means learning from the small pictures. If we’re listening to the body,  then ya don’t have to win the workout.

Move more than train, play more that exercise. ‘Let the body’ far more than ‘make the body.’ In my roughly 10 years of competitive weightlifting (15 years powerlifting), I’ve upped my total the sum of what the specialized youngin’s will get in a year. But I’ve racked up a handful of other groovy skills that enable me to enjoy movement beyond the gym. That total means little without the transfer to real life. I don’t live for the gym, I live beyond it. Training is purposeful intense movement to allow an even greater world of purposeful movement, even if the purpose is simply just to fucking MOVE!

Strength athletics are simply a small part of my potential. Not my net worth. Competition is a bench mark of my journey, not the end result.

My child self is made better as an adult through training. With a tad of grown-up wisdom (do better, not more), it isn’t a challenge to progress every year while engaging longevity, sans the danger of pushing extremes I don’t have to. Don’t get me wrong, I play on the edge during training, just not with reckless abandon or unnecessary volume.

me-tgu-terri-6bwAnd think of this. If, at 44, I can add pounds to my bar or skills to my body with far less volume than a kid in their 20’s… why are they working so much? They’re often doing 2 or 3 times the workload without 2 or 3 times the progress. Every workshop I teach is full of folks my junior who could out workout me. But I could out play them. My skill chunks are always increasing, while their volume is simply making them workout masters. Funny enough, with my limited time in the gym, I can still usually hold my own with their workouts as well.

But being an athlete isn’t defined by time in the gym. If you can do less in the gym for more in life, shouldn’t you? Trust me… you can.

 

 

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The Mom Test

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The Mom Test is pretty simple. Would I send my mom to your gym?

Sure, she’s 70-something, but having been a thinker and doer her entire life, she’s free of a great deal of age related buggity-boo. Most joints in decent working order, mind like a laser and a vice combined… a Vaser, aimed and ready for anything. Plus this big ol’ puppy dog heart that, actually prefers puppy dogs to people. This witty animal rescuing fire cracker of a woman would be an honor for any trainer to have as a client, and that’s not just me whistling Dixie (which I can’t do… never did have the tongue for it). But there is one caveat.

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Her son is a bit of a snob. A snob about her health. Wouldn’t you be if she birthed you and raised you? She is a card carrying members of the 85%. Although quite active and in a higher level of health than her peers, she probably hasn’t seen the inside of a gym for some time, which, as you might expect me to say (snob, remember?), might not be a bad thing. Her gym is her several acres of land that she roams with her dogs. Maybe that makes her a fringe member of the 85%, but she let’s just say she hasn’t been successfully targeted by the Fitness Industrial Complex.

So this snobby son of hers wouldn’t let just any trainer (‘coach,’ whatever) take her into their web. There isn’t a brand name that instantly passes the mom test. In fact I’d steer her clear of all of them. There isn’t a trend that passes the mom test. Heck, she’d even find that insulting. The industry as a whole fails the mom test horribly, which is a big reason why she hasn’t chosen to be part of it.

Sometimes, it ain’t snobbery. Heck, you as a coach might not want her. You might specialize in something in particular and she just might get in the way. Cool. Thanks for knowing and acknowledging the path of your passion. My mom would make a shitty powerlifter or acro-yoga student, and you don’t have to sugar coat it. Should she deadlift? Yes. Should she aim for her 1 RM or worry about breaking parallel on her box squat? Or balance on someone else’s feet?

Or work on her third pull (or even know what a third pull is)? Or learn a kong vault?

No. But I still know many weightlifting, parkour, acro and powerlifting coaches I’d trust my mother with. It doesn’t matter what they teach, even if they specialize. It’s bigger than that. Sure, they’d probably be bold enough to say ‘hey… this might not be the best idea,’ but even if they didn’t, I know these coaches well, and I know she’d be in good, empathetic and highly skilled hands.

me momSo it isn’t what you teach, it is how, and more importantly, why. The coaches I know in the above scenarios all have strong personal philosophies that speak of integrity, holistic wellness and play. Their passion has a Do No Harm clause built into their mission. The three ingredients of transformation, intensity, consistency and purpose, are defined and celebrated properly, and these coaches can express the process to anyone, including my spunky, if not explosive, mother. They might not want to, but I’d trust them to if they did.

My radar has a few years of fine tuning in its wiring and programming. The question routinely pops up in my inbox if I can recommend a gym, usually somewhere far away. Sure, my network is vast, but in all my travels and gatherings and hugs, there aren’t many folks I feel would pass my mom test. And that’s it. That’s the only test I care about. I wouldn’t recommend a gym to anyone unless that gym passes the mom test. Because the Why beats the What, and that’s across the board. If you can’t treat my mom well within a training program, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. That’s what my radar is honed on… a rare blend of passion, competence, integrity and empathy.

It’s full disclosure time here. I myself wouldn’t have made my current standards of the mom test many years ago. These aren’t traits taught in school or certification classes, which is why, as mentioned before, earning the title ‘coach’ ain’t a title to be handed out so liberally.

But you’re out there. I’ve battled gravity with you, broke bread with you, laughed and cried with you. I’ve read your words, heard your voice, watched you move and felt your heart. I’m thankful for the growing network that I’ve accrued through my journeys. What a Tribe!

So… who wants to train my mom?

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The Reason We Move, part 3: the 85%

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(part 1 here)
(part 2 here)

The 85%

The fitness industry is failing. Or should I say it should at least be doing better. There is one big reason…

Our recruiting program stinks.

Dave Hall will drop this bomb on ya: only about 15% of our culture is participating in movement and fitness. Kevin Geary says only about 1% succeed at making it a lifetime of good choices. Although that second number seems hard to prove, it still behooves us to ask what the heck is going on here?

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Mental Meat Heads workshop at Agoge Fitness Systems

A mountainous chunk of the info bouncing around right now – the youface videos, the articles on superbadass.org and bloodWOD.gov-  is the 15% talking to each other. Heck, it’s happening right here, right now. And that’s groovy, since our tribe needs to share, educate and support each other (remember the three needs of a tribe: communication, equality and sustainability).

But trainers impressing trainers sure isn’t attracting that 85%. And the campaign that is in place to entice this population is more flawed than the Arizona legislature’s idea of “tolerance.”

Here are some ideas…

What if we actually listened to the body?

It begins with replacing judgment with compassion, maybe even an understanding that would empower the 15% as well as the 85%. It is quite tempting to call non-movers lazy or scared. But I’m going to posit a theory…

Bodies understand movement better than brains. Yet brains are what created the fitness industry. Brains are what believe what the industry has taught them movement is supposed to look like (and how much it should cost). But if bodies thought for themselves, so to speak, how do you think they’d perceive what we call ‘fitness?’ Under the assumption that your body would even want to go to a gym, what would that gym look like? The shiny spectacle of the common chain gyms would have NO appeal to your body. Cardio theaters and color coded ‘strength’ equipment are brain candy, but bodies would reject them. Even dingy warehouses with nothing but some bars, bumpers and a pullup station would seem sort of dull.

acro 1Our bodies want what we used to call recess. Intensity in fun, challenging forms, and the brain and body would have differing opinions of what this looks like. So my theory is that at least some of that 85% might simply be hearing the muffled cries of their bodies screaming “that’s not what I want!” Don’t write them off as lazy… maybe just perceptive, but lacking real resources.

In my videos and workshops, I ramble on about the child’s mind, this archetypical consciousness where movement is understood, if not completely consciously, to be integral to all processes of the self. Therefore approaching movement as a perpetual student creates greater potential for growth.  The child-like approach to movement is curious, creative, explorational and judgment-free. Although the fitness industry does a fine job of treating us like children, nothing about the industry’s presentation actually appeals to the child-like approach our bodies desire.

Even as adults. Heck, ESPECIALLY as adults. Adults in a culture that tries to squelch play somewhere around high school, turning movement into a series of categories, formulas and routines geared towards a superficial product. Maybe some of that 85% can simply sense bullshit.

Yes, laziness does exist. But not physically. Laziness is a brain game, a disconnect from the body. Many friends of mine claim they suffer from laziness. These are artists, parents, writers, professors, musicians… quite productive in many aspects of their lives. They’re not lazy. They’re scared. They suffer a disconnect from their bodies and  have yet to been shown the value of movement, or a venue or outlet for which his body finds it appealing to begin the journey.

This is a bummer. Because all that productivity will cease as soon as their bodies give out. Their tribes – families, peers groups, jobs, communities – will lose an important member. The body doesn’t want this. It isn’t lazy. Possibly poorly fueled and tired, but not without the essential desire to participate in life.

But there is a deep psychology in movement, or lack thereof. Which brings us to a huge point…

What the hell has our culture done to create such fear of movement? And why does the fitness industry do far more to perpetuate avoiding movement rather than enjoying it?

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Or deny each other

Because the industry is brains selling to other brains, not bodies being heard. Therefore it is getting it all wrong. Movement is being sold as categories, sections and trends. From ‘cardio’ to mobility, Zumba to CrossFit, movement has been turned into pieces, parts and genres. But the body doesn’t think that way, so to speak. Although some structure helps us reach goals, dogma can get in the way. Chosen places, correct times and approved movements are doing more to turn movement into a stressFUL experience, the exact opposite of what movement is supposed to do.

Some of that might be the built in politics of an industry.

If ya have an industry, ya have leaders. And leaders have followers. And none of this will truly breed a fun-filled stomping ground for the body. My Facetube feed is filled with industry posts geared towards trainers about being an ‘industry leader.’ Here’s the problem…

A tribe can usually only handle a few leaders, but can have many, many teachers. A leader has followers, a teacher has students. How many followers can become leaders? Very few. How many students can become teachers? All of them.

Mas wrestler Sonya teaching the next generation.

Mas wrestler Sonya teaching the next generation.

The 15% better get off our self-centered asses and recognize our potential teacher status. And since every true teacher is perpetually a student, we’ve got to shoulder that empowering responsibility as well. Ya game?

As trainers, we need to be mentors for goal setting. Not our goals. Theirs. Our job is to show them what is possible. We’re allowed to jump and play and laugh and love and dance and sing and rage and climb and fall and swoon and crave and fly. Allowed? We’re supposed to. It is what the body is made for. Consider not denying it.

One of the biggest lessons? Better choices now for more choices later.

I wanna tell everyone they’re beautiful and strong, and I want to start with you. Plans and programs and charts and levels and structure might be clinically proven but what about a simple hello and an open door policy to shine? That might be what the 85% need to get their party started.

(part 1 here)
(part 2 here)

 

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The Reason We Move, part 2: Deep Recess

(part 1 here)
(part 3 here)

Deep Recess

Sitting at a desk for what seems like eternity, often under the frown of someone with some fairly unreal expectations of what you’re supposed to deliver today… and for no observable reward?! Then, as if that’s not enough, why not take some of that work home with you. Meanwhile your being judged, graded, and picked apart by your peers, some of them who call you ‘friend.’

Damn 4th grade is a bitch! “Stressed out” might not be in the average 9-year-old’s lexicon, but it ain’t all fun and frolic. At this point in history you’re at least a couple of years away from catching your best friend’s brother rolling a joint in front of you, and the closest thing to hormonal demands on the heart, brain and various other anatomical bits is hoping for that clandestine game of truth or dare to force Julie Vessel to kiss me on the cheek.

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Oops…. did I switch tenses there? I wonder what happened to Julie. My cheek was never quite the same.

Not a lot of complaints about lower back pain or tension headaches though. So can we adults blame out current obsession with achy bits and joint creeks on age? Heck no. Age is simply the length of time we’ve had to make decisions, and if our choices were poor, that isn’t the fault of chronology, no matter how much we shake a finger at the calendar.

There is an irony that as we age, as the added responsibility of being grown up fills our cells with that elixir of destruction called stress, we also eliminate our release valve. Metaphor alert: MythBusters made a great case for not taking your release valve off of your water heater in one of the best blow-shit-up moments the show ever had:

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Our 4th grade self had what could be argued as an equal amount of stress to our adult selves, if we create a relativity formula based on physical size, collected wisdom and overall conscious coping options. So any waxing nostalgic we might do about the pre-teen years would be born from our yearn for those release valves that were available to us when we were hip high to a Grup.

We moved! And unless we had some sort of Bolshevik team coach, no one really told us HOW to move. We knew. We experimented. We explored. We played. Through movement of all varieties and intensities, we released tension.

And we learned.

Recess is strength, mobility and creativity in action, in demand, in flux. Great word, ‘flux.’ Vaguely naughty sounding, yet not. Flux even played a role in the greatest invention of the 20th century: The time-traveling DeLorean.

Playfulness ranks high on the things-that-help-us-NOT-breakdown-through-aging list. Holding onto your youth, or embracing it after a period of not speaking to it is pretty similar to time travel. Recess: our own flux capacitor.

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Oh wait, I hear that gossamer vibration of some young strength geek in the back shaking his head. He’s thinking that, at 22 years of age, he’s got years before he has to worry about any of this. He can lift, fuck and fight with the best of them now, and its all serious business, so to him considering training as recess, movement as play, is anti-cool. He’s a grown up now… no need for childishness. Just like mobility is yoga crap for chicks and old people,

Up until his first injury. Might be when he’s 23, might be when he’s 43, but not understanding how the body truly wants to participate in the world will create a physical mutiny at some point.

A switch is flipped, sometime in our lives, where movement turns from joy to obligation, from recess to a workout. Movement, which was the territory of the body, switches to the territory of the brain. The bummer is that movement then switches from being a tension release valve to being just another stress. It becomes a time, a place, a schedule, a routine, a class, an exercise.

jump funston 1bwWhat if we brought it back to being a celebration of motion, being able to let the body do, learn and be? Here’s the good news… if our brains have been successful wrapping themselves around the structured adult world of the modern workout, fear not! Successful play is served best from a foundation of structure. We can train for recess. In fact, the categorical protocols from all the years, studies and bodies that have created the shifting world of training science can still play a role in play. So can our favorite tools.

Our over-the-pond buddy Rannoch Donald recently commented on the beauty of true and playful movement being the product of consistent practice. We train to play… but with play as our training! A body wants the effort of conquering obstacles to achieve higher levels of ability, and that it pays off in many ways. The body wants the beauty of the challenge and overcoming it, not just the outcome. I believe that’s what we call strength.

But boy, does the industry offer it up in such an unappealing way, or at least I’m guessing our bodies think so.

(part 1 here)
(part 3 here)

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The Reasons We Move, part 1: the Beginning

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(part 2 here)
(part 3 here)

The Beginning

The article Routine versus Ritual has always been the mission statement of Bodytribe, the introduction towards our particular brand of fitness comedy.

But what led me to those realizations? Here is the first draft preface, or in modern terms, the `prequel,’ to how Bodytribe started…

It always begins on a mountain or under a tree, so far be it for me to be the exception. There is a mountain ridge amongst the Sierra range that is modest in size and user friendly. It is an intermediate hike to the crest which provides a nifty view of Serene Lakes on one side and Lake Norden on the other, not to mention the numerous other mountains, valleys and acres of trees that can be seen for miles in all directions. This ridge probably has a name, but I knew it simply as a mountain that rose up between a ring of cross country ski trails that circled its base during the winter. If, for the sake of organization, you’d like a name for it, let’s call it Sherry.

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I was about 10 kilometers from the resort’s lodge, deep in the woods and at the far end of Sherry one day when I decided that, since it was there, I may as well climb it (her?). It was spring and the snow was solid ice in the morning, and slush by late afternoon. In the ice stage, it was easy to ski off trail, if you had a good familiarity with the `skating’ style of cross country skiing. So up the mountain I went, skating the snow/ice, eventually reaching the top of the ridge.

Once the climb was made, the rolling peaks of Sherry’s top were a pleasure to ski, and the view had few equals, at points a 360 panorama of one of the finest, most piquant mountain ranges in the world. I rested on a giant rock, not knowing that it would be the location for an epiphany that would lock me there for several hours.

Sherry had many things to teach me.

Sherry and me, many years later

To Nature, Humans are not beautiful creatures. We’re fond of ourselves and sometimes each other, but the rest of the planet, the non-human majority, doesn’t view us as such. Naked, we’re not built to tolerate most climates. We offer no real place on any food chain. We’re not essential to any original ecology (in fact we tend to destroy any environment we inhabit). And we, when compared to other species, aren’t really that great to look at.

Why are we still around? For reasons beyond our understanding, we possess a cognitive gift more developed (arguably) than anything else on the planet. The theories explaining our `how’ have been argued since we first realized we could communicate beyond grunts. More exciting is figuring out the `why.’

Sitting on that rock overlooking vast sections of natural pulchritude had me a thinkun’. Admitting our inherent ugliness and lack of importance to an otherwise thriving and autonomous planet was a tough step. We all want to feel needed, but having the bosom of the Earth Mother staring at me from all angles imparted a strong message that if we didn’t exist on the planet, her survival would actually be easier.

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This awesome photo by Bodytriber KK Condon. Ask here where it was taken!

We, probably sensing our worthlessness in some corner of our unconsciousness, have made dangerous decisions about how to assert ourselves. We’ve decided as a species to CLAIM worth through domination, the classic sign of the insecure bully. The irony is lost on us that our punk-ass attempts at domination eventually show us how dependent we are on the planet, but at that point our seemingly infinite capacity for logic and rationalization have degenerated into greed, and we’re too power-drunk to admit to our natural, birth given ugliness.

The Hollywood scenario would look like this: the battered, bloodied hero, while spitting out a broken tooth and trying to get up off the ground, starts to laugh. The villain, feeling inches from victory, stops the pummeling for a minute to ask where the humor is in the present situation, just as he gets squashed by a train that the hero saw approaching the whole time.

Right now we can hear the planet giggling under our clenched fists.

Even the lifetime ago (when I was still in my 20’s) when I was on top of Sherry, nature was laughing at us, and had been for some time. My solitary perch upon her chest gave me some unexpected insight as to what might really be our purpose as a species. I was surrounded by beauty and purpose, as everything within visual distance had a place in the glory I was witnessing. In other words, where I was wouldn’t be what it was without everything I could see at that point, from the diminutive, almost invisible spiders that wanted me to get the hell off their rock to the massive range of peaks on the other side of the valley daring me to climb on theirs. The only one not serving a purpose would be this pale, stinky ape sitting on the rock with giant sticks on his feet and obnoxious colored boots.

Stop me if you’ve heard something similar: If a tree lived in a forest and no one was around to see it, would it really exist?

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Oxygen is a little sparse at 8,000 feet, making the spam and lime jello globe vibrating between my ears a little more privy to wackiness. But I believe Sherry was telling me that too many of our philosophical pursuits are as selfish as our quests for planet domination. In other words, yes, that tree exists, whether it falls and we don’t here it or it stands for several hundred years hanging out with peers and no human eye ever beholds it.

What good are we then? If we don’t have an instant place in the order of nature, then let’s look at the tools we were given, this ability to create thought, and see how it might be better used.

First, let’s define beauty as it relates to our scenario here. Beyond human aesthetic perception, let’s define it also as an integral part in nature, explaining then how, to the planet, we’re ugly and a dung beetle is, in its own way, hot. Beauty, to this big blue ball, is the utilitarian synergy of living things. And with a little squinting, we can probably see that too.

me-waterfallBut guess what we can do? Better, in fact that probably any other creature on earth? We can create beauty, in both the aesthetic perception sense, through art and ideas, and in our relation-to-the-planet definition. We’ve been given this ability, this quest, and the cognitive understanding to realize it.

How cool is that? Again, it really doesn’t matter too much as to how we got it. Whatever deity or beaker-and-slide-ruler you want to put stock in doesn’t change the fact that our real mission is how we use this gift.

It is the difference between just existing and truly Being. We’re surrounded by a constant parade of existence, lots of energy, hype and stimuli achieving nothing at all, creating so much unnecessary work giving us the false impression that we’re productive, when actually we’re just busy.

When we are honestly using our gift, though, steeped in the process of truly Being, then we are beautiful to the planet. If we can achieve this as a species, harmony ensues. Alas, a boy can dream.

If it isn’t obvious yet what the role of the holistic athlete is, and how each of our individual bodies connects some important dots in all this, then there’s your meditation for the week. And the purpose of this little blog series. In the meantime. Be you. It’s what you should be best at.

(part 2 here)
(part 3 here)

handstand me 1hand 1bw

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