“A true professional knows what to do and when to stop doing it”.

Put your seat, tray table and stewardess back in the upright position. Fasten your seatbelt and turn off your ego until we arrive safely back at the gym. We are going to fly above the clouds of common belief and as you will soon see your ego will just get in the way.

A trainer should know the basics of program design: reps & sets, rest, frequency, exercise selection, exercise order and load. The trainer should also know the body’s response to those elements from the cellular level outward so that any exercise program would have a strong rationale for its design and the outcome would be predictable. I said a trainer should know but it is sad how many don’t.

The serious amateur, regardless of their passion and commitment, simply have not had the years of study and experience to know those details in depth and are easily buffeted by the cross winds of the media and the superficial logic of advertising hype. Their workout history chronicles like a very long stay at an all-you-can-buffet, gorged on variety without much to show for it. But what I’m about to discuss is a conceptual foundation for exercise that should proceed all of the above elements and so fundamental that both the professional and serious amateur should incorporate it immediately in their training.

First, we need to agree that exercise movement is skill. Take the ever-popular male ego exercise the bench press and imagine watching someone attempting to bench for the first time. Depending on your imagination and sense of humor, the event could range from just awkward to EMTs needed to pry the bar from between cracked ribs. With a couple months of training experience, that same person would look reasonably acceptable, at least in the context of those lifting around him. But put that same person in the hands of an experienced coach from day one and that transition from awkward to acceptable could happen within a session or two. Keep the trainee with the coach for a few weeks longer and his form would be noticeably better than the best of the self-taught gym rats around him and his performance potential would have greatly increased while his risk of injury would have dropped. Why? The ego-entertaining expectation of performance and size gains were turned off and the focus was placed on skill development, the refinement of technique and the process was guided by a skilled coach. Performance improvements and changes in muscle structure come naturally as a result of skill improvement.

Remember, I asked that the ego be turned off. The ego is great for overcoming inertia and getting our asses off the couch to accomplish something beyond being a slug but the ego also makes a truly lousy coach. It constantly demands the satisfaction of new numbers, higher reps, more weight, bigger size, etc., chasing “bigger, faster, stronger, prettier” without regard to any unforeseen or negative consequences. A daily post-it note is stuck to your forehead with the dictate to make the goal of the moment happen. The reward for fulfilling that demand is always a new post-it note with an even greater demand stuck on your forehead to replace it. The Ordeal of Sisyphus now becomes personal and the only way the cycle is broken is either by the ego being attracted by a new shiny object to chase or an injury serious enough to actually stop training altogether. Otherwise, the rock rolls back down the mountain and the ordeal beings again.

If you have trained seriously for any length of time, your ego driven workouts have pushed you over the injury cliff many times and while bouncing down the mountain side, I’m sure three thoughts crossed you mind: 1) this is going to hurt, 2) maybe the last rep wasn’t such a good idea and 3) didn’t this just happen a couple of months ago. At these moments, I’m also sure that the smart side of your brain is feeling as frustrated as when you did the last time you tried to teach your dog the principles of the internal combustion engine. The dog watched your hand gestures, the laser pointer and your mouth moving but that’s about it. It didn’t get it and it didn’t care. Your ego doesn’t care either, it has its own agenda and your health is not part of it. Can you say, “Bigger, faster, stronger and prettier”? Of course you can and we all have many times.

So now, we’ve arrived at THE point of this discussion. Exercise is the constant development and refinement of movement skill and that the ego wants to also constantly cut in line ahead of skill because it thinks it’s special and waiting for results is also for wusses. Because of the ego’s involvement, I need more intellectual firepower so I thought I would elicit the aid of Brett Jones and his thoughts on the subject found in his recent Club Swinging Essentials Manual.

To begin: “What if going to the Gym meant learning?”

“Dancers, acrobats, and martial artists dedicate hour upon hour, year after year to learning how to move well, move fluidly, and move powerfully within their respective disciplines. These individuals get fit, not because their trying to break a sweat but because they are dedicated to improving their discipline. Their routines are more specialized than extreme, but the results defy physical boundaries and inspire awe in spectators. These disciplines are founded in the progression from beginner to expect and developed skilled practitioners through focused learning of their respective arts. In today’s gym culture, our potential lies far beyond ‘working out’.”

With this mind set, workouts become practice and exercises become drills. The natural progression from beginner to expect is not disrupted by the ego’s demand to cut in line beyond the body’s current skill level. The exercise or drill becomes a balanced meditative expression of both the desire to improve and the self-discipline to arrive on time. When the desire to improve exceeds self-discipline, there may be short terms gains to soothe the ego-beast but ultimate performance will be stunted and the body will be pushed closer to breakdown. Therefore, your training must be guided by a long term vision and your workouts are mere steps in that direction. This takes the pressure off of trying to accomplish everything all at once. As unrealistic as everything at once may be, the ego is convinced otherwise and this would be excellent time to start a game of whack-an-ego-mole.

With the ego as difficult to herd as cats and as persistent as toe fungus, patience will prove to be the most formidable weapon in calming down unrealistic ego demands and to “arrive with results on time”. Here is how. When a nerve signal is repeated over and over again, the body deems that volume as an indicator of importance and will begin building a structure of nerve connections to make the reason for the nerve firing more permanent and more efficient. As one strives to perfect the one arm kettlebell snatch by practicing the movement, the body will seek out what muscle recruitment is needed at what joint angles to accomplish the pattern. Using a light weight while building volume over time will allow the body/mind to develop and refine the pattern. Work capacity, strength and power can be introduced only when the pattern is firmly entrenched. However, if they are attempted too soon, the pattern will break down and the stone must be rolled up the mountain one more time. An easy concept to remember is: fatigue makes idiots of us all. So before you jump to the ego’s command to add more weight, push the limits of a time set or add more sets, put a dunce cap on your head and go sit on a stool in the corner until the urge goes away. Your body will tell when it is O.K. but only if you listen.

Learning the correct movement through proper coaching, having the discipline to control the ego’s demands and to insist on striving for training excellence through mindful practice will prove to be the best strategy for the investment of your training time and effort. Trust that results will “arrive on time” or in other words, only when you have earned them. There are no shortcuts and cutting in line is not permitted. Also your learning ramp is uniquely your own and comparing yourself to someone else is pointless. This would be a good time to point out the idiocy of “look what I can do” internet fitness forum postings and product testimonials with the believability of a Penthouse letter to the editor.

We have arrived safely back at the gym and hopefully “a true professional knows what to do and when to stop doing it” has new meaning to you. When I recently told Brett that I was trying to find out what a 63 year old could get away with and still recover, he handed me my dunce cap and responded, “Why not find out how little you can do and still make progress?” D’uh!

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