They don’t make ‘em like they used to. As I get older (and grumpier – is that inevitable?), I find myself thinking like this more and more. Over the many years I have been involved with the fitness, CrossFit, and strength training worlds, I have witnessed a sea of changes wash over these disciplines. Not all of it has been for the better, but I believe that with a little thought and guile, there are aspects of all of these global changes that we, as individuals, can learn and take positives from.
Here’s what I see changing before our eyes:
This is perhaps the biggest change, ably assisted by continual technological advances. There is so much information out there, in many different guises. Articles, videos, podcasts, and blog posts to name just a few. But surely the more you read, the more you learn? The more you watch, the more you absorb? Not necessarily.
Is too much information a bad thing? Yes, without application of the information. Applying what you have read in the gym does two things. It allows you to assess the information at hand – at first hand. It also allows you to create own reference points.
One of the things I hear most often is “How do I know who is right and who is wrong? How do I know whose advice to follow?” My answer: Question everything. Application is a form of questioning. Learn to dismiss “bad” information through experience and legitimate reasoning. And just because it doesn’t agree with your current perspective (if you have one) doesn’t mean you should dismiss it.
Another way I filter the good from the not-so-good information is through mentors and coaches. A good coach will have a strong network and will have a fine-grain filter from years of experience. Identify a good coach and make use of their filter. Social media is perfect for this – follow the coaches you trust. Pay attention to their own work, and look out for which of their peers they revere.
Lesson: Apply knowledge. Question “facts.” Filter everything coarsely. Use the finer-grain filters of those who have been through the mill.
Enter most gyms five years ago, and you would rarely have seen a foam roller. Bands were used for assistance in gymnastics movements or accommodating resistance. These days, enter your typical gym ten minutes before a session, and you will see most athletes rolling on the floor, using bands to mobilize, and generally (apparently) getting their bodies ready and prepped for the session.
This emphasis on mobility is undoubtedly a good thing. However, take a closer look at those people rolling around on the floor. Some know what they are doing. The rest are just copying those in the know! Don’t just go through the motions. Pick a mobility drill. Test, apply, retest. Did it work? If yes, keep it, at least until you find something that works better. If it didn’t work, modify it or try something else.
Lesson: Don’t just use mobility drills for when and where it hurts. Use them before you get hurt. Use them for position. Use them to make you better at what you do. Mobility is not just about fixing what is broken. How do you know if it worked? Simple. You can lift more weight.
These days, you can become an “expert” specialist in any aspect of strength or fitness you should so desire. Specialist education from those who are true experts (and not-so-true experts) in their particular fields is being made increasingly more available. In terms of widening your knowledge and skill base, this is fantastic. But there is a prerequisite. To widen your base you need to have a base to widen! Starting with specialist knowledge is like branches without a tree trunk.
Now, I am not saying that everyone needs to be a generalist. I am saying don’t be in a rush to learn the fancy stuff. The simple approaches and movements have more to offer than you think. Become virtuous at these movements and fluent with basic, linear progressions.
Once you have built a suitable base, I am a firm believer in immersing yourself in other specialist worlds. I don’t just mean dipping your toes in. I mean diving in head first with no clothes on. Training, eating, sleeping, talking, and living the world you are looking to learn about. To me, that is the only way to learn. If you feel this new world is for you, then stay there a while. If it’s not for you, then bring everything you have done and learned back to the base. By bringing a deep understanding of another domain back home, you may even find yourself as a specialist.
Lesson: Build yourself a good base before anything else. Absorb speciality knowledge and bring it back to the core. The magic happens when you make connections between disciplines.
However it’s not all about turmoil and change. It’s also about grounding yourself in the reasons we all do this. Here is a reminder of the underlying elements of strength and fitness that remain reassuringly constant over the years:
This stuff is hard. That’s never going to change. And it doesn’t get any easier. You just get stronger and faster. It’s not going to get easier if you wait until the first of January before tackling your next challenge. It’s not going to get any easier if you want it to (do you actually want it to?).
“The Iron never lies to you. You can walk outside and listen to all kinds of talk, get told that you’re a god or a total bastard. The Iron will always kick you the real deal. The Iron is the great reference point, the all-knowing perspective giver. Always there like a beacon in the pitch black. I have found the Iron to be my greatest friend. It never freaks out on me, never runs. Friends may come and go.
But two hundred pounds is always two hundred pounds.”
– Henry Rollins
Lesson: The iron never lies. It doesn’t get any heavier, or lighter. The work doesn’t get any easier. So you might as well just get on with it.
There’s something about facing, and overcoming, seemingly impossible tasks on a day-to-day basis that forges a common bond between those who do it. Humans have a natural urge to want to belong to a community, and this fitness stuff plays right into it. Of course there are factions and politics, there always will be. United we stand, divided we fall. But while the strength and fitness communities, and the communities within them, continue to grow, the spirit of community remains unchanged.
Lesson: Embody the spirit of community in yourself. Take pride in your community. Support it wholeheartedly, and it will support you back.
There is no denying that everyone can benefit from what we do. Sometimes the ever-changing aspects that we looked at above can cloud the way. The information overload can be confusing. Too many choices make people not want to make any choice.
Lesson: It becomes our job to rationalize this all through our own filters and moral compasses – then help others to do the same.
Let’s see where we can take this – together.
Photos courtesy of CrossFit LA.