“In reality, every physical movement is an act of will, a command given to the body, and the deliberate repetition of such acts — with attention, effort and endurance — exercise and invigorate the will. Organic sensations are thus aroused: the consciousness of physical vigor, a more rapid circulation, a sense of warmth and agility of the limbs, and their ready obedience; all produce a sense of moral strength, of decision, of mastery that raises the tone of the will and develops its energy.”
One of the most spiritually fulfilling experiences in life–one of life’s epiphanies–is learning something and getting good at it.
There is a story in my family about my learning how pedal when I was a toddler–I don’t remember the experience itself. Apparently, I really struggled to learn how to pedal on my tricycle. At around the same time, I struggled with word ‘banana.’ This blockage with pedaling and being able to say ‘banana’ went on and on. As the story goes, one day I came cruising down the hallway on my tricycle, at the same time saying triumphantly “banana banana banana.”
As we get older, we start to devalue these experiences. We become competitive, self-conscious, time-conscious, results-drive. The joy of learning starts to wear off.
Embarking on something new when you’re all grown up can be daunting. Starting with baby steps when you’re no longer a baby is a humbling experience.
However, as you get better at something, it becomes easier and more enjoyable. You’re also able to do more. As you continue to get better, it starts to take on depth and importance. What happens when you become really good at it?
In Japan, they have known the answer to this question for centuries. It becomes a spiritual practice. It becomes a transcendent experience that takes you out of yourself. It begins as an apparently simple activity–raking gravel, folding paper, shooting an arrow, training to fight; and yet mastery requires blood, sweat, and tears. When you reach a certain level, you realize there really is no beginning and no end. The whole process was the goal. Being a beginner and being a Master are part of one big circle–your black belt eventually turns white.
Someone will come to me and say, “I’m weak, I’m unhealthy, exercise hurts, I’m a spaz and I feel weird at the gym. How long is this going to take?” As a pragmatic trainer, my first answer might be, “six months if you follow this program.” But deeper down, I want to say, “This is the beginning of a new chapter in your life. In fact, this is going to take you the rest of your life.” When I see them struggling through the simplest exercises, I want to whisper to them, “Today is actually a great day.”
I believe that fitness saved my life.
A lot is already known about the release of serotonin that comes with exercise, the increased energy and general sense of well-being.
For years, I have struggled with the classic male covert depression, often mislabeled “mild” depression. It’s the type of barely acknowledged depression that is held at bay by numerous little mental habits and coping strategies–everything from obsessive hobbies to gazing out the window and daydreaming about being rich and famous. Without apparent addictions, it doesn’t set off alarms. My mantra was “I’m fine” followed by a shrug. Every so often, a crack appears and what comes rushing in isn’t sadness but anxiety. Anxiety is a silent killer. It can brilliantly keep up a facade of calm and control. It also contain its own twisted logic–“I’m anxious about [blank].” That means [blank] must be very important.
When I started going to the gym, it wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t pull my socks up and throw myself into it. I went because I was bored and there was something about it that appealed to me. I jogged around the track, lifted some light weights, did a few crunches. I did the same routine for six months.
As my body woke up and I became more active, I wasn’t completely at the mercy of my depression and anxiety. I had something else up my sleeve.
I never have a “bad” workout. No existential crisis, no writer’s block. It’s a time and space where effort and fatigue become my friends. There are moments when I don’t even feel as if I’m exerting myself; I’m channeling energy from somewhere.
Our body moves in three planes–the frontal (or coronal) plane, the sagittal plane, and the transverse plane. The frontal plane includes movements that go out to the sides (for example, the jumping jack). The sagittal plane includes movements that go forward and backward (for example, walking and running). The transverse or horizontal plane includes twisting or rotational movements (for example, throwing a medicine ball from waist height).
To encourage range of motion, a nicely varied workout should include movements in all three planes, and ideally some movements that include more than one plane (for example, forward lunge with medicine ball twist).
Of these three planes, the most neglected is the frontal plane. Most exercises and most daily activities happen in the sagittal plane. This makes sense–we move forward and we work on things that are in front of us; we don’t often shuffle and bend to the side. Likewise, movements in the transverse plane are fairly common–throwing a frisbee, hitting a tennis ball.
The simplest exercises in the frontal plane can make little alarm signals go off in our body. Exercises like the lateral shoulder raise, the side press, and the side plank are surprisingly hard.
To repeat my main point: mixing it up in the resistance phase of a workout doesn’t just mean mixing up upper, lower, front and back; it also means these three planes of movement.
For any well-rounded fitness program, there are three key elements that should be covered in every workout:
There are countless possibilities in how you approach this mix, depending on your needs, limitations and preferences.
Here are just a few examples of needs and preferences: muscle mass, muscle tone, weight management, improved posture, improved endurance, improved joint mobility, improved core strength. You might have aesthetic needs: a great beach body, a set of six-pack abs, a great set of pecs, or just an overall lean look.
Once you have covered those three bases, there is a lot to be said for mixing things up from time to time. The word “plateau” gets used a lot in this context; you progress to a certain point and then stay there. Once you have done a fitness routine for while and seen positive results, it’s easy to do the same thing over and over; after all, you’re getting good at it…why change?
I’ll explain by way of example. Recently, after about six months of doing body weight exercises, I decided to do a couple of sets of dead lifts and squats. I didn’t pile on the weights–I stayed within my safety zone. The next day, my entire lower body was sore. It felt as if I hadn’t set foot in gym for five years. Muscle conditioning is part of the process of adaptation–you break down tissue and allow it rejuvenate. Adaptation can happen on a very subtle level; stop doing the bench press for a few months, replace it with push-ups, then try going back to the bench press and see what happens.
When making a customized program, a top personal trainer should maintain a balance of repetition and change. Doing the same exercises again and again leads to a plateau and leveling off effect. At the same time, throwing a bewildering array of exercises at your client creates confusion. There should be enough predictability to see progress, and enough change to prevent plateauing (not to mention boredom).
Here are a few ideas:
- Change the equipment (e.g., medicine ball instead of dumbbells)
- Change the surface (e.g., push-up on a stability ball instead of the floor)
- Change the distribution (higher weights and fewer reps)
This balance of repetition and change is something I now strive for in my own workouts and the workouts with my clients.
For about a year, I trained at a boxing gym where we trained until we were ready to drop. A workout consisted of 30 minutes of warm-up exercises and calisthenic/body weight exercises, then 30 minutes of boxing drills. After the first 30 minutes, we were all standing in a puddle of our own sweat. Every so often someone would stagger to the side of the room, lean against the wall and slide to the floor.
We all understood that this was a real boxing gym and that this was no “box fit” class. At the end of the workout, we said things like “killer!” and “brutal!” and “insane!” We loved it.
After a year, I simply stopped going. It wasn’t that it was too hard or too dangerous.
It’s that it was unsustainable. When every workout pushes you to the limit, where do you go? A debate over the best overall fitness program is nothing more than hairsplitting–free weights vs. machines, Pilates vs. yoga, heavy vs. light, and so on. But a deciding factor is sustainability–can you see yourself doing this for the next 20 years? Will you reach a certain level and then stop?
Maybe this is one of the things that drives the fitness industry. People try something for a while, get restless or burnt out, then move on to something else. It’s not that it isn’t challenging; it’s that they plateau and have nowhere else to go.
“Give me twenty push-ups,” a trainer says after glancing at her clipboard and seeing her client’s target number of reps.
“Okay Coach.” With a lot of wincing, grunting, and shaking, he manages to get to twenty. At nineteen reps, his technique has fallen apart–head drooping, hips touching the floor.
What is the benefit of this approach for the average fitness client (not bodybuilders and power lifters)? Probably very little.
Pavel Tsatsouline wrote, “Muscle failure is more than unnecessary—it is counterproductive! Neuroscientists have known for half a century that if you stimulate a neural pathway, say the bench press groove, and the outcome is positive, future benching will be easier, thanks to the so-called Hebbian rule. The groove has been ‘greased’. Next time the same amount of mental effort will result in a heavier bench.”
The keyword is “positive.” Getting to eighteen push-ups with good technique and without muscle failure will make it easier, not harder, to make improvements in the future.
Listen to your body. Stop when you still have a couple of reps left in the tank. Stop when you hit the ‘yellow light’ of fatigue. In fact, don’t even worry about the number of reps.