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.

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