A few weeks ago I did a post entitled, 10 Easy Pieces of Wisdom: and Why “Secret Wisdom” is Bullshit. That article’s premise was that understanding what one needs to do to be wise is simple, but the process of doing it is inescapably arduous–often to the point of seeming Sisyphean. (For those who aren’t brushed up on their Greek Mythology, Sisyphus was the guy who was punished by having to roll a rock up to the top of the hill only to let it roll back down, and the repeating the process ad infinitum.) I’m not saying that it’s a Sisyphean task, just that it can feel that way and one has to press forward through that feeling.
This post has the same premise, but applied to fitness. Fitness and wisdom have more in common than you might first think–they are both about improvement of the self. Unfortunately, the commonality that’s relevant here is that both invite crowds who will try to convince you they have an end-run around hard work. One of my past martial arts teachers, who was also in law enforcement, said that “cons only work on people with larceny in their hearts.” So it is that the con-men that are trying to sell “enhanced formula supplements” or “a 15 minute per week workout” can only sell to the people who want something for nothing. (Clue: what you get for nothing is nothing worth having.)
Without further ado, here are the 10 easy pieces:
1.) Know Thyself. This is a two-parter:
First, don’t let your ego write checks your body can’t cash. Some students want to jet right into the most advanced exercises. That’s like a third grader taking trigonometry; it’s ultimately less than productive. These are the individuals who tear ligaments, and who you don’t see again for six months–if ever. For virtually everyone, advanced exercises–be it a muscle-up or a yogasana like Urdhva Dhanurasana (A wheel pose, chakrasana, that is entered from a standing back bend)–require a lot of time spent in capacity building via fundamental exercises.
I’ll give an example, I saw someone on television yesterday doing the most horrendous single-armed push up. The only thing that kept this individual from damaging himself is that his range of motion was so tiny (he may have still injured himself.) His problem is that he heard that single-arm push-ups were cool, and he wanted to get straight to it. In reality, one needs to build into that exercise starting from a good solid standard push up, and then doing preppers (preparatory exercises) that gradually shift the load onto one arm. But maintaining form as well as one can. For example, putting one hand on a block off to the side, and gradually shifting it out to arm’s length.
Second, on the other hand, don’t half-ass everything because you mistake discomfort for agony. This confusion cause people to greatly underestimate their capabilities. While you may think your teacher or trainer is a Sadist (only rarely are they are, really), the fact is that they are trying to give you one of the greatest gifts you can ever receive, which is the realization that you are capable of far more than you think you are–if you’re willing to gut it out through the challenging parts.
2.) Diet is the 800 pound gorilla of cutting weight. The simplified mathematics of this that adding exercise (while critically important to fitness) only marginally adds to the calories burned part of the equation. (Believe it or not one burns a lot of one’s calories just through baseline activities–breathing, walking, sleeping, etc.) However, when you cut caloric intake that’s all reduction from the intake side of the equation. However….
3.) Don’t make your goal weight loss, but rather to have a healthy and more functional body. Weight loss tends to be about external validation. That is, one wants to appear more attractive to someone else (or everybody else.) That’s a sucker’s game. People won’t necessarily notice–depending upon how often they see you and how self-absorbed they are. If you shed pounds at a healthy rate, people around you all the time don’t necessarily notice a day-to-day change.
On the other hand, as one starts feeling healthier and develops movement capacity beyond your previous capability, that can’t be taken away by anyone.
4.) When your body has been properly prepared through fundamentals, advanced maneuvers practically fall into place. I was taught a scorpion prepper just a couple of weeks ago, and was surprised to find it was much easier than expected. I still have a lot of work to do to take it to the full pose. For example, I’m still using a wall so I don’t over-rotate in the arched back position, but I bring my heels off the wall once I’m up. Next I’ll do away with the wall. Then it will be time to start bending my knees. My point is that work on back stretches, core strengthening, and headstands made it relatively easy to get into the first stage.
5.) Reveling in small victories can kill progress. The handstand provides a classic example. In the beginning, one starts kicking up against a wall. Even this can be a challenge in the beginning. However, as soon as it becomes doable, one should start gradually taking the training wheels off. This may begin as cautiously as pulling one leg away from the wall at a time. Then do away with the wall altogether. Then the suffering begins anew as one sheds the kick up in favor of a more controlled manner of ascent into the handstand.
6.) Don’t be quantitative. A journalist once asked Muhammad Ali how many sit-ups he did in his training regimen. Ali said, “I have no idea. I don’t start counting until they start hurting.”
I’ve heard guys pleased with themselves because they do “sets of 100 push-ups.” This is often impressive only until you see the person actually do the exercise, and then–more often than not–you notice that they haven’t actually done one push-up. Rather, they’ve done a whole lot of mild elbow bends from a roughly plank-like position. It’s better to do 10 push-ups with a full-range of motion and controlled ascent and descent than to fool yourself with weak form.
7.) Don’t mindlessly workout. Shun the distraction of headphones, television, or cellphones . If you find working out to be so mind-numbingly boring that you need a distraction, you should re-evaluate the nature of your workouts. You should be “listening” to your body throughout the process. If your goal is to have a greater command over your body and its movement, e.g. you are a martial artist, dancer, yogi, etc., then this is particularly important.
First of all, with respect to boredom, boredom is the product of a weak mind. So you might consider working the mind out as well. Secondly, if you are truly bored, you should be upping your game.
While this may be one of my least popular points in this post, if you don’t believe me, ask Al Kavadlo.
8.) Rest is part of the process. It’s not stepping away from the process. As your body rests, your mind should be alert and taking stock of the effect of the practice on your body. Rest breaks aren’t zone out time. Also, part of having a healthy body is building a healthy parasympathic nervous system and immune system. Your body requires rest to heal, and it can heal and fight off infections tremendously effectively if you provide the right conditions.
9.) Exercises that consist of the motions you will need for your particular life are the most important. The term “functional fitness” is ubiquitous these days, but I first read this advice in Bruce Lee’s Tao of Jeet Kune Do. Lee said that actions like punching, kicking, and grappling practice should make up the core of a martial artist’s workout. That doesn’t mean one should do away with general fitness activities. (Lee certainly didn’t.) Martial arts provide a prime example of an activity that requires a well-rounded form of fitness. That is, one needs core strength, good range of motion, cardiovascular endurance, and extremity strength and speed.
10.) Don’t agonize over failures. Move onward and, carefully, upward. If you aren’t (safely) failing to achieve an occasional goal, then you need to kick your way out of that box of comfort zone you’re trapped in.