Getting to the root of fitness issues: are we doing it right?

It’s a sad business, the way we treat fitness. We well-meaning enthusiasts chide those who’d rather stay on the couch, and tell them they’d be so much better off if they just go for a run. We’ve been taken in by “no pain, no gain” philosophy. We believe that it’s a matter of willpower, because hey, going out for a run is pretty tough.

And we did it ourselves.

But have we really thought about why someone else may still be sitting on that couch?

Let me present you with a possibility, best explained with a metaphor. Suppose that you go free climbing with a friend that’s much better than you. You get to the first pitch and just by eye-balling it, you know you can’t do it—or at least that you’d be much better off in a harness.

I submit to you that a very similar calculation is going on in the head of that person we’ve so dismissively labeled as lazy: faced with the prospect of a two-mile run—that’s just 15 minutes of running!—their brain analyzes their body’s motor and endurance capabilities, but has no words or protracted arguments to explain this calculation. So it acts in the only way it can, in the same way your brain acted faced with that rock wall: it speaks to their subconscious.

And how does this manifest? Your friend the couch potato becomes daunted, queasy, unsure, and discouraged.

This happened for a reason. Professor Tim Noakes, who I believe is a proponent of a solid 30% of today’s sensible nutrition, lifestyle, and exercise prescription ideas, proposed the central governor theory. The central governor is a predictive mechanism in the brain that analyzes the body’s athletic capabilities with regards to the expected performance requirements of the athletic event, in order to produce an optimum output—one which ensures that the event is completed, that the best performance is produced, and that the body is in a condition to perform again.

Your friend’s brain did this very calculation, and gave their subconscious the thumbs-down.

Guilt-tripping them into your chosen activity is doing them a disservice. Through sheer luck they might not get injured, and through even better luck they don’t completely hate running afterwards. But in terms of their health and bodily integrity, you effectively cornered them into rolling the dice.

So what? What now? We’re supposed to just let them sit on the couch for the rest of their life?

No. Absolutely not. Everyone should have a peer or mentor to pull them out of their comfort zone and propel them towards excellence in areas of life they couldn’t have believed possible. Just not that way.

The mentor or coach has to be wiser. They have to be willing to ask the question: Why?

They have to be willing to ask it again and again and again.

This reminds me of that show by Louis C.K., when he describes how his daughter just bombards him with questions that quickly veer towards the existential, until he explodes in frustration. Well, all respect to Mr. C.K.’s reaction, I believe that at the end of that long and agonizing chain of “why’s” is the answer to why someone is still on the couch while you and I have long since gotten up.

And here’s a clue: it wasn’t laziness. When you refuse to stop there, and ask “why” yet again, you’ll find an answer, if you look really hard. And if you’d looked really hard at your friend, you might have seen a frozen right gluteus medius, or a pair of shortened psoas that turns their hips into an unmoving mass of muscle instead of the well-oiled differential you were expecting.

Unfreeze that right gluteus medius. Help them lengthen those psoas. You might just see that their inexplicable reticence vanishes overnight.

Exercise, the fitness industry, and the pursuit of skill.

Most of the people that I know work out to lose weight, to put on muscle, or to get fit. Modern ideas about exercise and athleticism pushes us in that direction. The message is clear: workouts are a means to an end.

There’s a big problem with this. Weightloss and “fitness” are—and have always been—side-effects of more movement.

Just going to work out isn’t enough. Think about this: if you run a few miles, and your skill level (meaning the combination of experience, strength, and endurance) isn’t enough to sustain that distance, you’ll end up breaking your body. “Just doing more exercise” requires something very particular.

It requires developing more skill.

But a lot of the people that are out for a run or at the gym—they just want the weightloss. They’re not in it for the skill. That’s fine, and it’s certainly not their fault: a variety of media, driven by a powerful marketing machine, have impressed upon them that their self-esteem, social acceptance, and their health is subject to whether they exercise or not.

So they expend precious mental capital to get out there and go burn some calories. But what the fitness industry has not told them—what it relies on them to discover alone—is that movement opportunities are created by movement skill.

Think about it: most of our urban areas are an uninteresting environment, and vertical urban environments are impassable (and alien) to the majority. But to the traceur—the parkour practitioner? This is their playground. To the average runner, the highway, with gas stations every ten miles, means nothing. But for the ultrarunner, that same environment is nothing but potential.

The experienced ultrarunner, skilled and knowledgeable in the art of the running gait, can burn five thousand calories, and then go burn some more. Leanness (and fitness) is a by-product of the ultrarunner’s quantity of movement—but their quantity of movement is a direct function of their movement skill.

Movement skill always precedes quantity of movement. This puts the average gymgoer in a catch-22. Remember: they’re not in it for the skill—they’re just in it for the quantity. That’s what they’ve been told is important, and furthermore, here they are, at the gym or on the run, despite their interests and wishes. By focusing on weightloss or fitness (but not movement skill) as a fitness goal, they are quite literally compromising the achievement and maintenance of their stated goals.

Not all fitness goals are created equal—but not because some are worthier than others. In any skill in any domain of human activity, competence is a prerequisite for the achievement of any goal. Some goals are simply more conducive than others for creating the competence required to achieve a broader array of goals in that domain.

As movement expert Gray Cook said, “technique is always the bottleneck of limitation.”

Technique—skill—is the bottleneck goal. Without technique, the achievement of all other exercise goals (fitness, weightloss, or muscle growth) will be compromised.

We athletes and fitness enthusiasts must become ambassadors for this idea. The belief that the pursuit of skill is just one goal of many is flawed, and it militates against the athletic achievement of those whose only mentor is media. Skill, and not shoes, and not gear, makes you fast and powerful. Movement quality drives all sustainable increases in training volume. Until we internalize that, many of us won’t achieve our fitness goals, and we won’t understand why.