I am not a fan of popularity. Dan Wieden, the great advertising creative who came up with a little campaign called “Just Do It” for a small brand called Nike had a great insight when it came to popularity. In Wieden’s heyday, focus groups were an essential part of getting an ad produced and out in the public. A focus group is simply a small sampling of people in a target demographic that sit in a room, get exposed to a product or campaign and give their feedback on it. Wieden always resisted letting his work be put in front of focus groups.
To paraphrase the advertising legend, with a focus group, you find out what’s popular, what people are comfortable with. We’ll never make an impact or get people thinking if we only give them what makes them comfortable.
What is popular is what is comfortable. And much like training, thought-provoking work has nothing to do with sticking with what is comfortable.
So now that I have given you this lecture, I am about to deliver part two of one of our most popular blogs. The first one was called I Call Bullshit: 5 Fitness Trends That Need To End.
I realize this makes me seem like a hypocrite.
However I point to the double slit experiment and the impact of the conscious observer. Without filling this blog with a lecture on quantum physics (of which I am deeply unqualified to deliver), this experiment and resulting theory shows that electrons behave differently when they are being observed. It’s amazing really. Shoot electrons through two slits at a screen when no one is watching and the result is what’s referred to as an interference pattern- several different bands show up on the screen. But add an observer, whether that is a recording device or a live person and the electrons act differently, they simply go through the slits and result in only two bands on the screen. The only difference is that someone or something is watching them. Total mind fuck.
So, getting back to my hypocrisy, while I am not a fan of what is popular I also realize this blog makes no impact if there is no conscious observer. In other words, it could be genius but if no one reads it, it’s not doing much good.
Luckily a vast majority of these topics are of interest to people who are interested in fitness and my opinion on them is likely to be unpopular. So, I’m hoping this blog is widely read and wildly unpopular so I can still feel good about myself.
And now that I’ve satisfied the need to include a rambling, seemingly unrelated introductory non-sequitur, let’s get to the actual topic – five blights that I am seeing infect the world of fitness and what I think of them.
Your workout should not be a grind. Yes, workouts, when done correctly, are challenging. You will experience some pain and physical discomfort. Sadly, it doesn’t work without these things. But hopefully you are engaging in training in order to, at the very least, make yourself better and, at best, to compete or make an impact in the world. Your workout is not a punishment, a grind, a war or any of the other over-the-top adjectives people seem to use in conversation, marketing materials or social media to prove that they are hardcore. Actual hardcore people simply put the work in without trying to convince you that they are outworking you in some mythic battle that only Homer could possibly document – aka their one-hour, three-times-per-week workout.
We always say that your workout should be the best hour (or two) of your day. One of my old training partners Sam would often turn to me when we were in the middle of a brutal sled workout and say, “Dan, we are living a privileged life.” Indeed. Getting to train in a great environment with nice equipment among friends and likeminded people is a privilege, regardless of what your monthly training fees may be. If you feel like training is a sacrifice you probably need to be doing something different with your time and get some perspective of what sacrifice is. To paraphrase the great speech at the Democratic National Convention by Khizr Kahn, a man who lost his son to war, you have sacrificed nothing. Sacrifice is giving up something you love and hopefully you appreciate training as much as you appreciate whatever else you would be doing with that time.
Finally, can we stop using the term “in the trenches” to describe being on the training floor. I know it’s an analogy and at the risk of sounding picky or petty there are real people who are in actual trenches in the world and, while I’ve been fortunate enough never to have been in one, I promise you it feels very different than walking around your air conditioned gym.
Tag A Friend. I really appreciate people who put out great content on Instagram. I find myself learning something new or marveling at some great feat of strength or at least getting a good laugh daily. But please don’t ask me to “tag a friend”. “Tag a friend who would love this”, “tag a friend who needs this”. Please stop. If your work is good I’m really excited to share it and show it to my friends. You don’t need to talk me into it. And, no, putting exploding firecracker emojis around it does not help.
Jumping To Conclusions. Dmitry Klokov is a charismatic weightlifter who has had a long and incredible career that included a silver medal at the Olympic Games. The words charismatic and weightlifter very rarely find themselves in the same sentence and thus Klokov has become a very popular figure in the world of weightlifting and CrossFit – sort of a modern day, Russian Arnold Schwarzenegger. Which is probably why I most often hear his name bandied about when trainers talk about looking at and emulating what champions do at the beginning of their career (Klokov started weightlifting as a teenager) and not the protocols they use later in life when they are already exceptional at their craft. This makes perfect sense. Until you have the thousands upon thousands of technique reps and years of strength that someone at the level of Olympian achieves you should probably not train like they do. I agree.
Conversely, we read books like Born to Run and get convinced by the author Christopher McDougall that since the Tarahumara tribe from the Copper Canyons of Mexico are incredibly good distance runners and they run without supportive running shoes that everyone should immediately run barefoot. Never mind that the Tarahumara come from a culture of running for survival and the average American spends most of their time sprinting down the aisles of Costco to grab the free samples – just ditch the shoes and start logging the miles. Five years after this craze began, injuries piled up, lawsuits were settled and we now know that jumping into barefoot running not only isn’t for everyone, it’s not for most.
We are so quick to take the latest research or observations, jump to conclusions and implement them into our client’s or our own training. And while I am a big believer in expanding your horizons and adopting new ideas please do so with a skeptics eye and a bit of common sense in your head.
Getting Your Fitness From People Who, I Don’t Know, Do Fitness. Remember the good ol’ days when the guy who ran your local gym was a total meathead who was passionate about training or a former powerlifter or someone who studied exercise science? But ever since fitness has become big business you are more likely to have your local studio run by a Harvard MBA who’s never touched a weight and your class led by, my favorite new phrase that makes me want to jump out a window, an enter-trainer. Luckily I work in a windowless basement.
You don’t have to have developed a passion for fitness when you were 8 years-old or have been a former pro athlete or have a PhD in exercise science to qualify for operating a fitness facility or train people. But you sure as hell should have the requisite experience and knowledge base in order to call yourself a fitness professional. And, sadly, the people who own, run and often even train the throngs of people who attend the latest, trendiest fitness classes that can pass for nightclubs are, maybe appropriately, people who run nightclubs or ivy league business school graduates who don’t know the difference between a strip set and a strip club.
You should want your fitness curated by someone who knows fitness. Unless things like staying healthy and getting results are not particularly important to you.
Your Body Is The Machine. This is the rallying cry of many CrossFit and “functional” training gyms. Essentially, what it means is the facility is equipped only with tools that allow your body to move through space rather than being strapped down to a machine. Barbells, kettlebells, dumbbells and ropes – no machines. Unless that machine is a rower which for some reason is okay.
The prevailing principle here is that you should be focused on doing multi-joint, complex movements that require total body coordination rather than, God-forbid, single-joint “bodybuilding-type” movements. In general, this is decently sound thinking. The majority of your training should be dedicated to these types of movements as they tend to carry over better to athletics and life’s tasks.
However there is certainly a place in nearly everyone’s training for single-joint and, dare I say it, machine-based exercises. Incorporating this type of training can effectively bring up weak muscle groups or allow clients to feel specific muscles contract which can help them with proprioception when they return to the more complex movement. So if a client displays quadriceps weakness in the squat and cannot seem to even access the quads when you cue them, substituting with an exercise that solely focuses on the quads will allow them to strengthen that muscle group without any synergistic muscle groups taking over and give them more of a mind-body connection of what a contracting quad actually feels like.
Discounting an entire modality of training does not make you hardcore. It simply limits the tools you have to accomplish the tasks at hand of getting healthier, moving better, improving body composition and increasing performance. Unless that modality is Tracy Anderson Method. Then you can discount it entirely.
Let me wrap this up by sharing one more advertising story. This one is my own.
I was sitting in the offices of Bed Bath & Beyond. At that time I was a copywriter, someone who works on the creative aspect of advertising, and BBB was my agency’s biggest client. We were presenting some print ads when they client turned to me and asked, “Dan, which one do you like?”
The executives in the marketing department at Bed Bath & Beyond were notoriously cold and difficult and somewhat heartless when it came to our work.
“Whichever one you like,” was my response.
And I wish I could tell you that it was said with some I-don’t-give-a-shit gangster intention but it was not. It was scared and uncommitted and spineless. I still cringe thinking about it. It was one of a handful of moments that truly showed me that I had to get out of that career. That I wasn’t being who I wanted to be.
I was simply seeking approval by latching on to whatever was going to be popular.
And I don’t like popular.