Category Archives: Defining our Terms

The irony of the “fitness” identity: a praise of CrossFit, and a critique of its founder.

CrossFit, in name and on paper, is an excellent form of exercise. CrossFitters achieve fitness through emphasizing the mobility and functionality of the body across many varieties of athletic skill. In my opinion, the most physiologically sound version of a human body is one in which its strengths and abilities are expressed alongside a capacity for sustained, safe, and healthy endurance running. CrossFit doesn’t emphasize the development of the “aerobic engine” necessary for that kind of endurance running. That may be my one complaint against the sport. That aside, CrossFit is as good as it gets.

As a runner, I live with the hopes of becoming fast, regardless of who’s next to me, or where I go in the world. Because of that dream, the training philosophy of CrossFit—and many of its exercises—have become a staple of my training. My simplest interpretation of the CrossFit philosophy is that a single-event athlete will be better at their best event if they are a multiple-event athlete. In other words, ability has to be cultivated across a breadth and depth of skills, for “fitness” to emerge. As the website says:

“By employing a constantly-varied approach to training, these functional movements at maximum intensity (relative to the physical and psychological tolerances of the participant), lead to dramatic gains in fitness.”

It’s there in the name: CrossFit.

Ever since hearing of CrossFit, I do more and more classic weight exercises such as the barbell squat—and have consistently made gains in speed, power, and endurance over “purer” runners. I’ve incorporated jumping rope as the ultimate plyometric and cognitive exercise: the amount of repetitions that you can put out during a jump-rope session do wonders in honing your body’s ability to exert force against the ground, and receive it safely.

CrossFit’s definition of “fitness” is the most useful I’ve ever heard of—or that CrossFit is aware of, too; it says it right there on the website. “Fitness” is defined as:

“Increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains. Capacity is the ability to do real work, which is measurable using the basic terms of physics (force, distance and time). Life is unpredictable (much more so than sport) so real world fitness must be broad and not specialized, both in terms of duration and type of effort (time and modal domains).”

This is a great definition. I can’t visualize a world where CrossFit practitioners would be anything but the supreme examples of health, if that philosophy (and this definition of fitness) were followed to the letter, and taken to their logical extreme. I’ll begin by breaking down their philosophy—(I’ll do the definition of “fitness” in a bit)—so you can see why:

Employing a constantly-varied approach to training. Taken broadly enough, this means that the concept of “training” can easily be expanded to encompass activities that aren’t typically known as “exercise.” Nutrition, for example. Developing the functional components of nutrition would be a boon to the athlete’s net power output. Seeking spiritual, social, and emotional health for their purely functional benefits, is perfectly encompassed under this philosophy.

I think back to Chris McDougall’s book, Born to Run, in which he quoted the kinds of advice that legendary track & field coach Joe Vigil would tell his athletes: “Do something nice for someone.”This is a varied  approach to training. And a coach like Vigil would only incorporate it because it helped take his athletes to another level of athletic achievement. (These kinds of “unorthodox” approaches are common across the 1% of the elite: Bruce Lee trained “breaking habits,” and when that became a habit, he would break that one too).

Let’s analyze the phrase “movements at maximum intensity, relative to the physical and psychological tolerances of the participant.” This phrase implies a systemic understanding, in which the athlete is not perceived to be a machine, but a person with a unique reality, a unique set of circumstances, that can influence their athletic output at any given time. This is a call to empathy for of the trainers, and a call to self knowledge for the athletes.

Let’s move on to the definition of fitness: “Increased work capacity across broad time and modal domain.” On the surface, this means that the athlete should have speed, power, and endurance.

But let’s look at the definition a little bit more deeply. Especially in conjunction with the phrase “relative to physical and phsychological tolerances,” I could easily argue that one such “broad time domain” is a lifetime. In other words, embedded within the very definition of “fitness,” as put forth by CrossFit, is the argument that health entails fitness: there must be health if the athlete will be “fit.” Under that definition, losing “fitness” because of a lack of health means that what seemed like fitness wasn’t fitness, but was instead a façade—a social performance of fitness that broke down under the assault of time.

Only in view of that impressive philosophy can this next part be so damn ironic. I recently read a New York Times article critiquing the obsession of Westerners with physical fitness. The article quoted extensively from an interview with Greg Glassman, CrossFit’s founder. The NYT article’s critique of the fitness craze centers around Glassman’s 2005 admission that CrossFit had become a breeding ground for an exercise-induced condition called rhabdomyolysis, which can lead to kidney failure. According to the New York Times article, Glassman viewed the rampant “exertional rhabdo” problem as part of CrossFit’s “dominance over traditional training protocols.”

This is absurd—and not only in reference to a “reasonable person’s” idea of fitness.

The idea that a dangerous kidney condition is a marker of fitness goes against CrossFit’s stated definition of fitness—the potential for increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains. Furthermore, persevering through exercise despite the onset of rhabdomyolysis is a serious breach of the idea that intensity should be measured relatively to the physical and psychological tolerances of the participant.

But wait! There’s more.

According to the NYT article, Glassman also wrote: “Until others join CrossFit athletes in preparing…the exertional rhabdo problem will be ours to shoulder alone.”

You just can’t make this stuff up.

Glassman’s writing reminds me of something I read in a book called The China Study, about the physiological effects of eating animal protein (specifically, of its contributions to cancer and heart disease). In that book, the authors quoted a physician saying that heart disease was the burden of man, and that only “the effeminate” would pursue other, healthier, avenues of eating to escape it.

In these two examples, these “experts” on health have structured their identity around the ill effects of their chosen activities! When the marker of being “a man” is heart disease, it becomes impossible for anyone subordinated to those social circumstances to seek a healthy lifestyle.

Similarly, if it is the presence of exertional rhabdo that makes CrossFit so “superior”—at least in the eyes of its founder—then the presence of rhabdo in the athlete quite naturally becomes the high watermark of achievement. In direct opposition to the stated philosophy and mission of his fitness empire, Glassman has set up a dangerous situation for his followers: if they haven’t suffered the ill effects of exercise, that means they haven’t been training hard enough!

The problem here isn’t CrossFit. It is the discrepancy between what CrossFit proposes on paper and what its founder touts as the “CrossFit identity.” This should serve as yet another reminder of the fact taht there is often an abyss between what a particular training regimen does for us, and what it is supposed to do. Often, the problem isn’t in how we follow it, but in how we don’t—or more specifically, how we overshoot.

If the reasons for which we overshoot are based on a set of social beliefs that we have created around us—that have long since been divorced of any knowledge of the world (or were never based on that knowledge in the first place)—we are treading dangerous waters. Often, we can’t even see them. Not when it counts. We might be able to laugh at those ironies over a couple of beers, but once in the gym, they will consume us and guide our efforts. If we have taken an identity upon ourselves, all of our exertions will be in service of that identity.

And if that identity centers around illness or overtraining, it doesn’t matter what athleticism we have cultivated as a short-term side-effect of our exertions. We will lose it.

We live and train in social systems. Often, those systems do no favors to the physical, psychological and biological systems on which our athletic output is predicated. Our identity—which is based largely on the demands of that social system—will shape our choice of exercises, the intensity, duration, and frequency with which we do them, and the efficiency of our rest and recovery. What’s on paper never reflects the reality of the situation. The social system, via our identity, informs the effectiveness of our athletic development. 

Let’s make sure that social system, and that identity (or lack thereof), is the right one.

UPDATE: For an answer to the NYT article critiquing “extreme fitness,” see this Outside Magazine article. I’d love to hear your thoughts and answers to any of these articles, and this blog post, in the comments.

Are you obsessed with getting fit?

The New York Times just came out with an article about the American fascination with “extreme fitness.”

The article critiques this trend on several grounds:

  • People are paying money to mimic hard labor; why not just go work construction?
  • The fitness trends of today are usually modeled after a watered-down version of “ultramasculine” groups like Navy Seals.
  • In these trends, “fitness” is often achieved at the cost of health. The NYT article that this isn’t fitness at all.

I have a post in the makings about my own opinions on these things, but first, I’d like to hear what you have to say.

Read the article (also linked here)—or don’t—and tell me what you think about the extreme fitness trends (or the critiques of it) in the comments.

Anything goes.

Pain is NOT weakness leaving the body.

At one point or another, we’ve all been given those well-intentioned pieces of advice: push through it. Pain is inevitable. Not really, no. Pain is the body’s way of telling our conscious faculty—our “executive control”—that something is wrong. The sensation of pain happens so that we are aware of what is making us stop, so that we can consciously pick activities that won’t damage whatever is hurting.

Instead, we tune out the pain. We ignore what’s going on—and by doing so we become incapable of changing the conditions that led to pain in the first place. And the culprit is that well-intentioned advice: pain is weakness leaving the body.

Continue reading Pain is NOT weakness leaving the body.

How philosophy powers athletic achievement: a personal anecdote.

Earlier this summer I ran the HTC race in Oregon, a well-known, hundred-plus mile relay. I was part of an excellent and enthusiastic Reed College team. I was given the more . . . motivating, if you will, leg of the race. It consisted of a set of three stretches—legs 5, 17, and 24—totaling about 21 miles. The last stretch included an 850-ft hill. I engage with running as a form of expression, and not a form of propulsion. Nowhere does the contrast between expression and propulsion become more stark than when a single group of people—each and every person with their own metaphors, mental models, and training histories—run together up a hill in heat that closes in on the double digits.

As was the case on that particular hill.

Now, I’m not the fastest runner out there. And, I gotta say: should precedent and probability have the final say, I’ll never be. But over the years, I have developed my running to be quite effortless—and therefore, quite fast. I like to run without effort, and fully engaged, like a well-oiled machine where every tiny part is playing its part in exactly the right way, all the pistons moving in perfect synchrony, all of the forces which course through my body coursing through it in exactly the right vectors. This is a story about what effortlessness means, what it does for you, and what it feels like. But more importantly I share what are, in my opinion, the most basic ideas of how to replicate it it.

Continue reading How philosophy powers athletic achievement: a personal anecdote.

On “False Performance.”

I believe that the only way to be as fast as I wish I am, is to think myself exactly as strong as I actually am. I constantly overreach, and even more often arrogate capabilities to myself that I don’t actually have.

Want to know how I get injured?

I blind myself to the interface between my body and the world, and I use willful ignorance to dedicatedly circumvent certain truths about the world—truths that accelerate at 9.8m/s² (32.1ft/s²), and, in my case, slam into my feet with around 450 lbs of force. Somehow, I have to bully myself into greater awareness, and greater humility about myself and the world. Somehow, I have to find a way to train healthy and safe.

And to that end, I use the term false performance. I invite you to use it as well.

Continue reading On “False Performance.”

Deconstructing “flexibility.”

Throughout our lives, most of us have heard that it is extremely important for us to be “flexible,” for a variety of reasons. Off the top of my head, I’ve been told that flexibility is important to make movement easier, so that my joints don’t deteriorate, and so that I don’t get hurt lifting heavy objects. This is excellent advice. But the problem is that basically all of us go about achieving greater flexibility in exactly the wrong way: by stretching, or more specifically, static stretching. And that is because we don’t understand the concept of flexibility in a mechanically useful way.

One of the main physiological problems of westernized people is poor biomechanics—a phemonemon that basically boils down to the idea that the muscles across our bodies are badly synchronized. Simply stated, they don’t know how to work well together, and when they are subjected to trying circumstances (such as exercise or age), the mechanisms freeze up and become damaged.

For some non-athletes, stretching may help initially. In a very low-risk environment, stretching helps these frozen mechanisms because it increases the net joint range of motion (ROM). This means that the joint can go just a little more before it gets hurt. But that doesn’t solve the problem: the muscles haven’t become synchronized; we’ve only ameliorated the symptoms because we’ve created ROM by isolating the muscles (due to stretchier tendons and weaker muscles), instead of developing their synchronization.

This is a classic case of a systems management problem called “shifting the burden.” We have a perceived need to increase flexibility (because of a particular set of assumptions), and we shift the burden of flexibility away from synchronization and towards isolation. When the symptoms ameliorate, we think that the problem is solved, and we subject it to higher-risk circumstances, such as sports. Soon, we find ourselves caught in an unending roller-coaster of injury.

We can solve this problem. But in order to do so, we must deconstruct our notions of “flexibility.”

Continue reading Deconstructing “flexibility.”

Knowledge, “the tyranny of ethnography,” and our personal athletic horizons.

Our athletic potential is based largely on the biological traits humans acquired in evolutionary time, while our athletic horizons are mostly built around our experience of the athletic feats of people in our society. We are not in a position to make judgments about our own athletic potential.

Daniel Lieberman, the chief proponent of the endurance running hypothesis, has continually fielded criticisms that humans could not have evolved as endurance runners, because the cognitive burdens of persistence hunting, such as the need for tracking, would have been too great for early hominids to bear (among other things).

In a 2007 paper, Lieberman et. al. respond to such criticisms suggesting that (among other things), “less-encephalized mammals than humans”—i.e. those with smaller brains—are quite capable trackers, etc. Throughout the paper, the authors suggest that such criticisms come from the observation of modern hunter-gatherer groups, such as the Bushmen. They point out that spears and other hunting techniques are relatively recent inventions (from the early stone age), which fundamentally altered the ways in which humans hunted and scavenged.

Continue reading Knowledge, “the tyranny of ethnography,” and our personal athletic horizons.

Running, writing, and athletic expression.

It doesn’t serve us to think of running as we generally think of “sports.” Instead, let’s regard running as a form of expression. When we approach an activity we see as a “sport,” we typically ask: “what’s the goal here? Is it to get from A to B as quickly as possible? Is it to get the ball into the net?” And we put our bodies and minds in service of answering that question.

But there’s a problem with that: if we approach a sport with neural, muscular, or skeletal issues (which pretty much all of us westerners have, to one extent or another), our bodies will find ways around those problems for the purpose of achieving the stated goal.

That means that the body will find a less efficient way to conduct mechanical energy through the body, as long as the job gets done. Too much of this and you’ve got yourself an injury.

But suppose that instead we treat running (and other sports) as forms of expression. Then we enter a path of self-discovery, where improvements in speed and power are achieved as a by-product of increasing our efficiency, and our knowledge of the deep principles of our sport.

Continue reading Running, writing, and athletic expression.

Why we can’t “get fit:” Societal standards, negative-feedback loops, and the hedonic treadmill.

Many of us work out to “get fit.” But “getting fit” doesn’t really exist in the world, except as an ill-defined idea. In a multitude of ways, it’s just vague: The “standard” for fitness is mostly unclear—is it how bodies perform? Is it how bodies that can supposedly perform should look? What particular kind of performance is it? Running? Bodybuilding? Or is it about looking like we can perform some particular physical activity (regardless of whether we actually can)?

But let’s not stop here: “Getting fit” is vague in various other ways: When does it “end”? (In other words, how do we know we’ve “gotten” fit)? Is it when we’ve reached some particular aesthetic standard? Some particular functional standard? I’ve been training for most of my life, and I’m no closer to answering these questions—not that I think they need answering.

Because these ideas are so vague, and the questions seem to yield such contradictory answers, my conclusion is that our notions of “getting fit” are (and have been) entirely missing the point.

Continue reading Why we can’t “get fit:” Societal standards, negative-feedback loops, and the hedonic treadmill.

(Re)defining the notion of “sport” through an argument from biomechanics.

In my opinion, a “sport” is any activity for which an increase in the relevant hip extension abilities is a necessary component of developing greater performance in that activity.

(“Hip extension” is the ability to move our thighs back and forth. When we consider what function the act of moving our thighs back and forth has in relation to the whole system, hip extension amounts to the ability to push on a surface or object with our feet by using our thighs and butt as the primary movers).

But why would I define “sport” that way? Because I’ve looked at which activities we tend to label as “sports,” which we don’t, and which fall somewhere in the middle. Furthermore, I’m interested in what ideas we use to categorize these activities. In my opinion, the idea that most people use to categorize activities as sports—or not—is whether hip extension (the ability to move our thighs back and forth) is a central component of that activity.

Admittedly, I believe that when they categorize activities in this way, most people aren’t aware that their parameters for defining a “sport” are tied much more closely to the presence and importance of hip extension, than, say, to whether it is goal-oriented or physically strenuous.

However, for most people, a big part of calling something a “sport” comes from the notion that it is—or must be—physically strenuous. But that alone is not enough: although we certainly consider football, baseball, the decathlon, weightlifting, and sprinting to be sports, what about going to the gym and lifting dumbbells?

As opposed to the first examples, lifting dumbbells seems like “working out,” or like “exercise,” but not like a “sport.”

Why is that?

And for that matter, how about ballet dancing, yoga, and other forms of physical expression?

This is where the line begins to get murky, and, in the opinion of some, with good reason. Yoga and dancing are, at first blush, not goal-oriented. There is no competition involved. And yet, the intuitions of many people would squarely place these disciplines within the boundaries of the concept of “sport.”

Those intuitions strongly correspond with the knowledge that dancers and practitioners of yoga have: that these arts are as goal-oriented as “typical” sports—if not more. Most “sports” have a single goal: winning in one form or another, whereas these pursuits have a multitude of goals. Posture, consistency, and strength are all goals of dancing and yoga. But let’s look at a deeper difference (or similarity—however you look at it): other sports also value posture, consistency and strength. It’s impossible to become an elite athlete in just about any discipline without mastering these. Except that they are placed in service of an external goal. For dancing and yoga, the aesthetic qualities that appear through function are ends in themselves.

So, there seems to be quite a bit of overlap between dancing, yoga, and “typical” sports, even on commonly-contested grounds. But let’s discuss a more interesting topic: why do some people have such strong intuitions that these activities are sports? In other words, what is it about yoga and dancing that prompts people to try and classify them as sports in the first place?

Superficially, the argument is simple: there’s something about the mechanical particulars of yoga and dancing that should put them in this category, alongside running and football. After all, they are somehow different from, say, chess, (which is more “typically” goal-oriented).

To throw a kink in my argument, the International Olympic Committee does consider chess to be a sport. I don’t—and not because I don’t think it’s worthwhile. I’d call instead that chess is an athletic endeavor (the greek word athlein means “to contest for a prize”). I don’t include chess in my list of sports because I’m interested picking apart the intuitions that underlie the common usage of the term “sport,” which emphasizes the physical use of the body.

In that sense my argument does massage institutionalized notions of what a “sport” is.

However, we can still make the argument that chess is physical, in ways that are both obvious and non-obvious. The obvious, of course, is that we use our hands to move the pieces. That observation is also uninteresting. But there is also the non-obvious: in The Art of Learning, former chess champion Josh Waitzkin talked about how his rivals would often tap the board in a certain rhythm to quicken his thought process and make strategizing more difficult. In other words, competitors in chess often find themselves in physical battles of some sort. But enough to term chess a “sport” (beyond its obvious status as an athletic endeavor)? That’s a long shot.

Then what makes yoga and dancing different from chess, but similar to “sports”?

Simply stated: hip extension.

I turn to a discussion in a book by editor Ian Jeffreys, Developing Speed. Jeffries writes:

“During a sprint, forces are developed initially through the hips, then the knee joint, and finally through the ankle joint. Therefore, activities that maximize the triple extension abilities of the athlete should play a large role in the training to enhance speed and acceleration. Exercises such as the squat, Olympic lifts, and hip extension exercises such as the Romainan deadlift should form the basis of a strength and power program for speed enhancement.”

In other words, one of the most important components of increasing the level of performance in sports is to develop the hip extension characteristics necessary for that sport. Different sports will need different hip extension characteristics, such as strength, flexibility, explosiveness or dexterity, but they all center on hip extension.

This brings us back to my definition of a “sport:”

A sport is any activity for which an increase in the relevant hip extension abilities is a necessary component of developing greater performance in that activity.

For clarity’s sake, let’s reiterate this backwards: if developing some kind of hip extension ability is not necessary to become increasingly skilled in some activity, it is not a sport.

For reasons that I will discuss in the future, the center of gravity (and therefore the mechanical center of the body) lies in the hips. In order to achieve proper flexibility, and range of motion of the entire body, practitioners of yoga must emphasize the flexibility, range of motion and strength of the hips (as well as the core). But no amount of core strength and flexibility will allow a yoga practitioner to climb the tiers of difficulty—that can only be achieved by increasing the relevant hip extension abilities: flexibility and strength.

The same goes for all varieties of dancing. Expressing the body against the ground (and fine-tuning that expression) is centered around the speed, power, and explosiveness of hip extension.

The hips are present in all sports: martial arts, wrestling, even arm wrestling. Hence the following saying:

“Have you noticed that whatever sport you’re trying to learn, some earnest person is always telling you to keep your knees bent?”

-Dave Barry

(Bending the knees stretches the gluteus maximus, such that all subsequent movements depend on its contractions).

In conclusion, I believe that because we have intuitive (and often completely unconscious) knowledge that certain activities engage the mechanical center of the body (the hips), we lobby to categorize those activities as “sports.”