Tag Archives: media

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.

From maximalist to minimalist footwear (and back): a lesson in resilience, and in “shifting the burden” systems.

The popularity of the trend of minimalist (zero-drop, low-cushioning) shoes has coincided with a sharp increase in running injuries, according to some sources. This has caused a large amount of community, media, and legal blowback on minimalist shoes, the most salient of which is the recent class-action lawsuit against Vibram, for misleading advertisement.

Misleading advertisement should always be punished. Vibram peddled their five-fingers shoes as the solution to running injuries. They are not. They should never have been advertised that way.

But this blowback has created an unfortunate tendency: blaming the minimalist shoes themselves as the cause of injury.

They aren’t the cause. Although this may seem contradictory, it is the fact that so many people get injured when switching from “maximalist” (shoes that are highly-cushioned; often with an elevated heel) to minimalist shoes—but not vice versa—that suggests that minimalist shoes are better for the biomechanics of human running.

This apparent contradiction can be resolved—but in order to do that we must look at the issue from a systems thinking perspective. And for that, we have to begin with the concept of “resilience.”

Continue reading From maximalist to minimalist footwear (and back): a lesson in resilience, and in “shifting the burden” systems.

Don’t confuse exercise with training!

Outside Magazine just came out with an article that talks about the difference between exercise and training. The contention is that exercise is more of a social activity, while training focuses on the development of the body.

The article cites an interview with Mark Rippetoe, the first coach to give up his National Strength and Conditioning Association credential. Rippetoe believes that one of the problems with the fitness industry is that they develop and market exercises to appeal to the consumer, not to develop the body—and worse yet, they either obscure this distinction intentionally, or are happy it remains in neglect.

I am excited that Outside Magazine is grappling with these distinctions, and promoting knowledge for the lay athlete. Because these marketing and social forces shape and ultimately define our training, our athletic development is at their mercy. The key to dealing with them is knowledge: by “trusting” in an exercise or a diet, we are sure to be playing to someone’s marketing scheme.

Ultimately, simplicity wins out—but it is impossible to market. There will never be an exercise better for developing aerobic power than endurance running. Since it is simplicity that makes it work, no amount of sophistication will do the trick. The same goes with strength: floor and barbell exercises are by and large all you need—and perhaps a simple weight such as a kettlebell.

So the fitness industry has no choice but to fabricate a story as to why so much variety and so much complexity is so important. Buying into this media machine means that while we look for ever more obscure and esoteric exercises, the athletes that keep it simple will be faster and stronger—and the reasons for their speed and power will remain completely obscure to us: the media veil that the fitness industry succeeded in putting over our eyes filters those reasons out of our awareness.

As Bruce Lee said:

“It’s not about the daily increase, but the daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.”

He said this for a reason. It’s up to each of us to explore why.