The theory behind our 8-week challenge
Exercise programs are like babies. They are mostly a pain in the ass but they are fun to make. Lynsey and I, with the rest of the trainers, had a ball writing the program but we also had more fun delivering and taking part in it alongside you folks than any of us expected. So first and foremost this post is a thankyou, you’re good people you lot, cheers.
Secondly, and perhaps more usefully, this is also an attempt to explain the thought process that went into the structure of our 8 week challenge and some guidance on where to go from here. Our end goal throughout was not only to increase strength and fitness but also, hopefully, to illuminate some of the philosophy underlying our training methods. The mechanical side of things is actually pretty straightforward, all the most interesting stuff is mostly mental. We don’t pick challenges out of sadism, well not purely out of sadism, and we don’t pick challenges purely for their physicality, we ask you to do something in the hope that you learn something.C
Take the first challenge as an example. Do 1000 push ups in a week. Maybe you discovered that you can do 1000 push ups, maybe you discovered you cannot do 1000 push ups. All good. 1000 push ups is hard, it represents a decent sized mountain to climb and interestingly, none of us took the same route to the top. Some planned ahead, turning a seemingly impossible journey into a series of achievable accents. Some just ran screaming at the bastard till their legs gave out, rested up and did it again. Most folks combined the two approaches. You put your head down and chip away at it for a few days till you look up and realise just how far you’ve come, you can see the top just ahead and think “I got this” and you smashed out a couple of hundred on the last day. Go you! Considering the size of the task its kind of amazing the number of people who were sprinting at the finish line.
The next challenge was completely different. Breakfast misery. Five sets of 5 push ups, 10 sit ups and 15 squats all done nice just as you wake up. Some people found it a cake walk, most people struggled. I lasted two days, maybe three, and I am not the only one, in fact more people failed Challenge 2 than Challenge 1. Which is weird when you think about it, they both require about the same amount of total reps but the second is split across three different movements which unquestionably make it easier. So why did more people struggle to complete what is the easier task?
I want to draw a distinction here between what is hard and what is difficult. Ze Germans probably have a word for this already but we are stuck with English so you will have to bear with me.
Chin ups are hard, going to the gym after a long day at work is difficult. Doing a thousand push ups is hard, properly heavy deadlifts are hard, if you’re not sure you wether can do something, it’s probably hard. Doing 5-10-15 for 5 sets every day for a week is difficult, I know I “can” do it but I am pretty sure I am not going to. Doing something hard requires a bunch of effort, doing something difficult requires a bunch of discipline. Doing something awesome requires both.
The last challenge we will look at was the 3rd one, 5 minutes of balancing work every day. You probably didn’t complete this challenge. You probably gave yourself the points for it and you certainly gave it a go a couple of times but you didn’t do 5 minutes of good balance work everyday that week. This challenge, the easiest of all, had the lowest completion rate of all the challenges. However, failure to complete this one is not your fault, it’s mine. The 3rd challenge was not “hard” nor was it “difficult”, it required less effort. less discipline and less time than all of the others and yet almost no one actually completed it. So what was lacking? Direction. A clear description of the task at hand. I mean, what the hell is “balance work”? Monkeying about on a swiss ball? Am I doing this right? What are we trying to do here anyway? An iron will and the best of intentions will get you nowhere if you don’t know where the hell you are going or how you are supposed to get there.
Don’t confuse a vague intention for an actual direction. “I wanna improve my fitness” is almost always bullshit, what you want is to get stronger or leaner or more flexible, you want to sleep better at nights or better resist the urge to choke slam your co-workers, these are meaningful directions where as getting “fitter” or “toned” is either a red-herring or a will-o-the-wisp. Either a false trail or a dangerous delusion, that following will get you lost in a swamp. Whiny losers on my face book feed say “I am trying to be a better person”, the actually nice people I know say “I volunteer at a soup kitchen Thursday nights at 7”. Don’t try and get “fitter”, try and dead lift 1.5 x bodyweight or row 2k in 8 minutes or do a headstand.
So looking at those three challenges and what they say about how you train, what are the takeaways? Where do you go from here? If you’re training with us you can focus on the “difficult” task of getting yourself into class and we will help with the “hard“ stuff of hitting your lifts or grinding out the reps. But what happens if you get posted to New York City or I retire to become a warrior poet? What can the last 8 weeks tell you about the next 8 years?
Firstly, I reckon you should probably do more hard stuff. Stuff that scares you, stuff that makes you nervous, stuff that you look back on with pride. Doing hard stuff is cool. Trying and failing to do hard stuff is even cooler. Aim high and you can literally expand what is possible in your life, you can get into the habit of doing things that you didn’t think you could do.
Secondly, be wary of over committing to the difficult stuff, because difficult stuff doesn’t challenge in the same way as hard stuff. If you have a wife, three kids and a prick for a boss you are probably not making it to classes at the gym at 6:30pm five nights a week. But maybe you can juggle some stuff around and be certain to make it to two nights a week. Lock those in, get done what you need to get done in those two days and if you’re feeling keen look for chances to add to it if possible. Figure out what you can commit to 100% and commit to it 100%, eventually that discipline will evolve into a routine, that routine turns into a habit and what was a habit becomes second nature.
Finally on maintaining direction and focus. I won’t even pretend to understand your motivations, what got you into the gym in the first place and what keeps you there. I don’t know the program structure which best suits your physiology or the training methodology that best suits your temperament. Your reasons and responses to exercise are as unique as your finger prints and I won’t pretend to know what they are. But I do know a few things. I know getting stronger and moving your body makes you a better person. Not only physically but, if you believe in the distinction, mentally and emotionally too. I know that modern life does not contain physical exertion of sufficient volume or intensity to maintain proper functioning homo-sapiens.
I don’t know what is the absolute best for you and your body and anyone who says that they do is a liar or is selling you something but I do know enough to make some generalisations. Pick up more heavy stuff. Throw things, including yourself, around the place with vigour. Spend some time around those who inspire and challenge you and acknowledge those times when you inspire others, because we are just social monkeys at heart. Find some things that you like doing and try to get better at them but also try and get better at just doing the things that you don’t like. Try to learn to love the grind, there are occasional moments of joy in reaching big milestones but it is the regular little splashes of satisfaction that best keep you going. When you inevitably fall off the exercise wagon, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get back on it. Treat a break from training like you would a missed lift, did you do something wrong or were you maybe asking too much of yourself? Take a breath, take some time, maybe make some adjustments. Then get back out there and pick that fucker up!
It has been a real pleasure folks. I will leave you with a quote from “Darwin’s bulldog” Thomas Huxley, the grandfather of Aldous Huxley. He probably never pulled a heavy deadlift in his life but he manages in two lines to kind of sum up what has taken me two pages to say.
“Perhaps the most valuable result of all education is the ability to make yourself do the thing you have to do, when it ought to be done, whether you like it or not; it is the first lesson that ought to be learned; and however early a man’s training begins, it is probably the last lesson that he learns thoroughly.” Thomas H. Huxley”