Feelin’ It: Going Where the Fun Takes Us or Going On Despite It All

Posted: June 3, 2011 in Articles

There are a number of schools of thought that you may encounter in your travels through our physical culture. The one extreme will say something like: “I never miss a workout. Doesn’t matter if a relative dies, a bomb drops, or if I’ve just had my appendix out. I’m in the gym. The only thing required for evil to prosper is for good people to skip their squats.” The other end of the spectrum would probably go more like: “I do what feels good on a given day, and stop when my body tells me to. If I need extra days to recover, that’s cool. If life intrudes now and then, I don’t sweat it. I work exercise into my life, not the other way around.”

In the same way, folks will give you different thoughts about workout adherence, programming, and experimentation. On the extremes, there are those who will say: “I only workout this way. All other ways are crap. Everyone who doesn’t do it like me, and always do it that way, can go suck an egg.” On the other side, there’s: “I’m always trying new programs. I get bored if I do the same thing every time. There’s no perfect program, no forever routine. If it stops being fun, I stop doing it.”

As with most things, the wise course probably lies somewhere in between these two points. If we’re too lax about getting our workouts in, we aren’t going to make much progress. Everything will stand in our way. On the other hand, if we’re so iron-handed with ourselves that we fail to recognize when it’s time to relax, we can make ourselves martyrs to our own stupid workout programs. After all, the goal we usually start out with is to make our lives BETTER. I find that if we’re not able to bend a little, we’re going to end up breaking. Don’t wuss out, but don’t suck all the fun out of life by white knuckling about every little workout. Seriously. We’re not training for the Olympics here, and even if we are, that doesn’t mean we have to be miserable all the time. That doesn’t make you healthier, faster, stronger, or more noble. It makes you dumb, and sad.

As we are able to put scientific inquiry into the realm of exercise, we still find radically divergent ideas about the best practices involved. In many respects, all exercise philosophies have things to commend them, and elements in which they excel. The level of discomfort involved, and the duration of said discomfort, tend to be hallmarks of specific programs. In some cases, the way that the exercise makes us feel is as much of a determinant as the end result.

Let me make this clear. There’s an element in many people within the physical culture that can best be described as masochistic. There’s some sort of psychological, or perhaps even endocrine-level response that some uncomfortable stimuli gives us that we just like. I won’t try to figure that out. That’s for people who are on salary somewhere. I’ll just state it as fact.

For some, the more “brutal” the workout, the happier they are. The’ll gravitate to others who they can share their war stories with. They’ll glory in how traumatic their workout just was. They’ll vicariously thrill at watching others have similar difficult travails. It’s weird, I know. I can’t tell you how often I have sat with others and enthused about how sore I was, or how spent I felt after a tough workout. There is some element of rejuvenation and purification ritual in exercise. When you’re leaning against the wall, soaked with sweat, muscles screaming, vision fluctuating with every jackhammer heartbeat, you’re alive. Beyond that, you know that this is as miserable as you’re going to feel all week, and that you willingly made it happen. It’s empowering, hopeful in a way.

Some types of workout really cater to this mindset. If you’ve watched or participated in the workouts of the day for Crossfit, you surely must have said, “these people are lunatics.” If you follow the High Intensity training methodology that Mike Mentzer laid out and Dorian Yates popularized, you are going to feel a lot of pain. They don’t call it “Blood and Guts” training for nothing. Some athletic endeavors appear to be all about pain. The marathon. The biathlon. The triathlon. Basically, anything that ends in “lon.” If you’ve ever run an 800 meters sprint for time, I think you’ll agree that if it doesn’t hurt, you haven’t been running hard enough. Getting near our own physical limits isn’t comfortable. It is pretty awesome, though.

The big question is this: how close to “the edge” do you have to go, and how often, in order to expand your potential? I’ve heard everything from, “balls to the wall, all the time,” to, “steady work at moderate intensity is best, to, “very infrequent, very intense training is the way to go. Overtraining is the one thing that’ll hold you back.”

An interesting development that I’ve been hearing about from my friend, Josh Hanagarne, is a method called the Gym Movement Protocol. Essentially, you use some biofeedback techniques to figure out what movements your body will respond to on the given day. It’s a little murky and magical to me at this moment, but I have seen people who are using the technique, such as Adam T. Glass, make absurd strength gains. The idea is that take a baseline on some physical determinant (often flexibility), then do a movement. To see if your body “likes” that movement, you test the flexibility again. If the body stiffens, that’s a “no”. If it stays flexible or gets more range of motion, that’s a “yes.” That doesn’t mean that you can just say, “my body always likes triceps kickbacks and toe raises.” If there are movements you really want to do, sometimes just altering the way you are standing, or the grip on the implement, will cause you to have significantly better results.

I haven’t done anything quite so ambitious, but if I start doing an exercise within my workout schema and find that it just doesn’t feel right, I no longer force my body to do *exactly that*. I’ll substitute something similar, or maybe I’ll do that particular exercise in isolation at a later date. There are some things to which the body will always object, at least as we’re getting used to them. We can’t let this initial weakness or resistance deter us from doing productive exercise. That said, if we usually love doing (insert activity here), but it just feels bad on the given day, perhaps our body just needs something different just then. Not listening to your body is a great way to get injured. Injured people can’t workout. Better to be a little careful and live to hoist another day, I says.

How ever you choose to follow your fitness and health goals, don’t let anyone make you feel guilty about that. Unless you’ve hired them to help get you somewhere in terms of fitness, or you’re part of an organized sport where there’s a coach, whatever other people might think of your methods falls somewhere between interesting advice and unwelcome, hot gas. In the end, you’ll find the part of it that fulfills your needs, whether it’s going ’till you barf or taking it slow and easy.

Happy Lifting!

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