Maxwell Strength & Conditioning Blog
Enjoy a peek at the world through Steve's eyes as he delivers sermons on everything from training to peace of mind.
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
-- John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn
Almost daily, I read articles about America's growing obesity epidemic. This, along with the general decline of citizen health, is a frequent topic of discussion. I read that 60 to 70% of Americans are sedentary--and Western Europe and the UK closely mirror the US. Of the 30% of the population who report exercising on a regular basis, only 5% exercise vigorously.
I needn't emphasize here the real-life horror show that is American youth. I read in the papers that obese teens and twenty-somethings are now termed "overweight" to prevent hurt feelings and a sense of disgrace. This national scale deterioration in physical condition was foretokened by the total decline of physical education funding in the public school back in the 70[s and 80's say, the last 40 years. And so guys in their 20's now have the look--and fitness levels--of men decades older.
Health is inextricably tied to physical activity: you can't achieve a high level of health without a corresponding level of fitness. By fitness, I mean the ability to meet your daily schedule with a reserve of nerve energy. Whatever your calling, you should be able to handle what life throws at you, with supple tissues, good reflexes and mobility. If you need to run for a bus, you should be able to do it with ease; climb several flights of stairs, pick up some heavy boxes; defend yourself on the subway.
Yet even the few people who train vigorously are confused on this issue and from what I've seen, the people training with vigor and enthusiasm are often as misguided as the those not training at all.
Of course, people reading this blog are already on board! Congratulations, you folks reading this are probably already training with vigor. You represent that top 5% --you're my "peeps".
But even among you--the Maxwell elite--many are confused about what it is, exactly, that you're doing.
I get around...and I see things. What I see is a lot of foolery carried on in the name of fitness, hijinks which are at best time wasting--and at worst utterly destructive. People performing--and instructing other people in--movements sure to induce injury, joint problems, chronic tensions, pain, and the depressing fatigue of enervation. Much of the training I see amongst the "fit set" is geared toward daft, quasi-gymnastic stunts unrelated to honest-to-goodness health and fitness.
And so my observations inform me that those people training with vigor and enthusiasm are every bit as misguided as those not training at all.
The same goes for the beefy barbell set worshipping at the altar of hefting the most enormous weight. A few specimens generate excitement with their impressive feats and this, in turn, is the source of the rampant confusion among the strivers between building strength and demonstrating strength. What, exactly, is it that you're trying to do?
Much of the training population is imbalanced. They persist in either strength training or cardio-endurance training--intelligence combines the two--while virtually everyone neglects mobility practices or specific joint-health exercises.
In my travels, teaching in different countries and experiencing different cultures, I've never yet met a man or woman over forty who wishes they had done more heavy weight lifting or pavement pounding for distance. The consensus is they regret leaving the joint mobility work undone.
I've seen a long-term trend among the "fit set" falling to the siren's song of training to realization of stunts. To a child's mind (Hey, look at me, look at me, I'm doing a planche!) one-arm handstands, hand-walking down a flight of stairs, jumping pistol-squats, bench-pressing double-bodyweight, the infernal muscle-up and daring jumps from high places, lofting heavy kettlebells for extravagant reps are all very exciting, but unassociated with longevity and health. All of these activities actually erode joint health because of the extreme stresses. The pursuit of these stunts reveals the approval-seeking inner nature. All of the time, effort and hard work required to obtain such stunts could better be applied to building true health and wellness. I promise, in twenty years, none of the current strivers will give a tinker's damn whether or not they ever pulled off such a trick.
Don't fire off the angry emails just yet! I'm not immune to acting a fool--and I retain the joint deformities and scar tissue as abiding evidence. It's always easier to recognize these errors in others--especially after the fact. My purpose here is not to get cantankerous, but to be forthcoming about what I've learned. Mental maturity--if it ever comes--begins at 60 and I'm now offering you the perspective of my 59 years. I've spent half a century in physical culture and my hope is that by admitting my mistakes I might help others.
The foremost objective of physical training should be what I call dynamic health. Dynamic health is a state of physical and mental well-being free from disease and pain. For example, a healthy individual is relatively unaware of his body when going about day-to-day business, so if you're walking around thinking, "Oh, my knee," or "my back," this is not dynamic health.
Many people train solely for the look. One of the most popular fitness and health gurus around (many of you read his blog and buy his book) boasted to me that he trains only for the look--the hard abs, hard ass and definition. While it's correct to aspire to look and feel your best, training primarily for the look isn't the way to health anymore than possessing the look is indicative of genuine health--it's fool's gold.
The problem is that people forever confuse the symbol with the meaning. This is especially apparent when the look is achieved with photo manipulation or worse, drugs and/or plastic surgery. The look has become so perverted by modern commercial interests that people are losing their perception of true beauty and all that remains is a distorted and fallacious desire. To discern beauty, look back to the classical age--before the degraded version became the norm.
What people--me and you and everyone we know--really want is to express beauty, but looking to outside sources for beauty is a futile expenditure of energy and resources. Beauty can't be bought, sold, nor applied to the body; neither scalpel nor nutritional supplements can bring it into existence. Take these paths and you'll get an imitation of beauty--a shoddy veneer. The low-minded, like a evil queen in a fairy tale mirror, will always reveal themselves. True beauty comes from within, from a higher mind. This mental state is supported by healthful diet, intentional exercise and beautiful thoughts, and is difficult, if not impossible, to conceal.
Most people in Western culture accept episodic illness as normal--it is not. Intermittent colds and flu are signs of poor resistance and compromised health. (The same goes for flatulence, poor bowel movements and digestive disturbances. These things should not be considered normal--they indicate distressed digestion.) The majority of the extreme training currently promoted enervates the body and thus lowers resistance. Proper exercise will increase resistance--immunity. I repeat: Smashing yourself unto exhaustion does not constitute healthy exercise. With a rational training program, you will feel better when you finish a session then before you started. I'm not saying don't push yourself to create muscular and systemic fatigue, but you don't push to the limit every time you train.
The rational trainee learns his or her limits, and respects them, playing around the edges. The old timers called this training on the nerve. This was the era before performance-enhancing drugs and supplements.
The fitness world today is looking at everything upside-down. The look takes precedence, followed by performing sideshow tricks. Health, if considered at all, is a lower priority. I assume this is because most of the 5% population who train with vigor are predominantly under 30 years old and so take their health for granted. But in my travels--and my clientele--even the body beautiful set are suffering and plagued with health issues and injuries. Too many are forced to quit training from chronic injuries and degraded health.
The Competitive Athlete
Competitive athletes are performance-driven and most are willing to sacrifice health in their quest to triumph in a chosen activity. Read the fine print: no one ever claimed that competitive sports are health-promoting. In fact, most sports break down health and can decrease life expectancy (not all sports however; it seems competitive swimming can increase life span.) Combat sports definitely take a toll on your reserve of life force and I offer as proof my own wealth of injuries collected over four decades of competitive combat sport. (Sometimes I wonder if anyone has ever been more ego-driven than me!) There are certainly pay-offs for the life force, such as achievement, exhilarations and worldly recognition--but it comes at the expense of great physical and mental enervation. I have undoubtedly shortened my life span, but merely enduring a long lifespan was never to me a worthy goal. A long lifetimes without acquiring self-knowledge is a hollow victory, like a 50-year golden anniversary in a social marriage without an underlying marriage of the heart.
What does it all really mean? It's important to be aware of the consequences down the road and the price you've agreed to pay. If I could go back in time, knowing what I know now, I'd certainly have done a few things differently, but I have no regrets. I have more perspective (and a small bit of wisdom) at this point and it's not that I'd change things, so much, as do them differently. But that's another blog!
I propose a different model for fitness: let vibrant health be your first priority. When health is superior--or at least optimal--then performance will be concordant. Take a good look at the fitness-identified people around you--probably most couldn't put in two hours of vigorous labor without unduly exhausting themselves. With or without a pre-workout beverage; post-workout recovery shake and a bottle of vitamin-enhanced water at hand throughout.
An able-bodied man is just that--capable of exerting himself when called upon. Health at the highest standard implies a body and mind with adequate nerve energy to exert yourself with efficiency while performing well at a variety of tasks. When health and performance are properly synchronized (truth), then aesthetics and the glow of vitality (beauty) will shine forth--that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Better to un-know the burlesque, exaggerated forms depicted in popular culture, and acquaint yourself with the clean lines of the classical Greek statue--itself a symbol of a higher, inner beauty (spirit).
I've made errors in judgment and countless other mistakes--but I've also done many things right. It's only here and now I'm figuring out what which is which. For one, I've always prized good health over my ego-fueled sports endeavors and competitions, and from the time I was a teenager, I've been regularly practicing various health rituals from earlier, more classical eras. I give these routines credit for keeping me young and viable whereas so many of my contemporaries have ruined themselves with their guts, butts, hip replacements, chronic illnesses and other dissipations. Interesting that I was roundly criticized and jeered at by these same people once upon a time--for these same practices--and now they pay to consult with me.
In my upcoming video project, shot in Maui, I demonstrate my health and well-being routines--the same daily practices I've used to keep feeling young. I offer these with great joy, as one shares a cupful from the fountain of youth.
In Strength and Health!
From the Inbox...
Questions on Training (from a high school wrestling coach)
Q: ...I have one follow-up question on training frequency. As you know (as a grappler) wrestlers and gymnasts work their muscles hard everyday or almost everyday.
A: They shouldn't. If they do so it's because of misguided notions about training.
Q: ...I think wrestlers and gymnasts have the most athletically aesthetic bodies.
A: They do, no doubt, but it's not because of training frequency--it's the all-around way that they use their bodies.
Q: How do they avoid over training given the stress they put on their muscles?
A: They don't avoid it. Wrestlers are notoriously over-trained. As a group, they're one of the most chronically over trained athletes--and gymnasts too. They suffer some of the highest injury rates of all athletes. A lot of this is due to the dangerous stunts, but much of it is chronic overuse injuries.
Q: ...Is it a matter of their bodies just adapting over time?
A: People can--and do--adapt to high-volume training, but it's never ideal.
Q: ...We scale the lifting back substantially during the season and our primary method of conditioning is to wrestle!
A: This is correct way; it's called " specificity".
Q: I know one D1 coach who strives to make his gains during the off season.
A: Employment as a D1 coach doesn't mean he knows what he's doing.
Q: ...But Coach X form X University (an annual top 3 team these days with 3 champs this year) said the reason they've been better the last 10 years is because they lift heavy all year 'round.
A: Even being a perennial winner doesn't mean he knows what he's doing. It may...but unlike smaller schools, the top programs have a huge number of athletes to recruit from. If you look a little closer, you'll find that for every champ he's produced, there are 10 guys who crashed and burned on the same program. These burnouts either got sick, injured or suffered mental collapse. Because the star coach has a large pool of athletes on which to draw, only the genetically gifted--with a high work capacity tolerance--thrive on his regimen. There may have been many extraordinary wrestlers who unfortunately burned out due to a lower tolerance for high-volume training.
Further, I don't know exactly what is meant by "lift heavy all year 'round" but I'm sure they taper at the right times.
Once again: there are ways to have the team train year 'round to maintain absolute strength without over training.
Appreciation from a client:
...It's interesting, because according to my food allergy test, casein is what I'm to avoid at all costs. [Yet, after following your food guidelines for some weeks] I have no digestive problems with yogurt. It makes me question the validity of the allergy test.
I was organizing all of my books today and started paying attention to all of these ridiculous diet books. Paleo, Warrior, etc. I probably have several hundred dollars worth. I felt like an idiot for pumping money out for that stupid stuff. Don't even get me started on the ridiculous stomach supplements. I don't even want to know how much money I wasted on that.
Give me your simple diet plan and a jungle gym. That's all a guy needs.
View more of Steve's videos here