The 6th P

There’s been a recurring phrase I hear in the gym, and it never ceases to amaze and excite me. In the midst of a workout one of the athletes will say that a movement hurts or is otherwise uncomfortable, or that it’s too easy, or any of the many other indications that they don’t wish to be doing what they’re doing.

I’ll advise them on alternative ways to do things. And based on their response, it’s safe to assume that they are somewhat surprised by my suggestions.

It might be that I’ll suggest a different movement entirely for their non-dominant side, or have them only work an uninjured side. This immediately triggers that innate OCD we all have that wants to “balance things out.” I tell them don’t worry about it; it’s okay to work each side with different movements or even leave out an injured side entirely.

They’ll say, “I can do that? That’s okay?”

Or maybe they’re not injured, but just plain don’t like working a muscle group in a certain way. Holding weight overhead makes them anxious, perhaps. I’ll show them how to work their shoulders using just bodyweight. No, you don’t absolutely need to do a barbell press.

“I can do that?”

A client comes to me to train for a marathon. Typically I reduce their weekly mileage considerably, and add in strength training to help rebuild their broken bodies.

“I can do that? Are you sure?”

Yes, I’m sure. You can do anything you want for your personal fitness. You don’t just have to do endless hours of the thing — whatever “the thing” is for you. You don’t have to deadlift in exactly the same way all the time. You don’t have to run endless miles in order to run races. You don’t have to use a barbell to be strong.

The answer is not singularly and indisputably found in CrossFit, kettlebells, endurance, dancing, gymnastics, or anywhere else. Because there is no one answer. There is no infallible system. There isn’t even a single set of “ideal” movements that fit everyone.

There is lots of room in this fitness thing. You can do whatever you want.

Over at GMB, you’ll hear a lot about the 5P framework: Prep, Practice, Push, Play, Ponder. (Read more about the 5P framework here.) But there’s a very important P that I think is missing from this framework: Permission. As in, you have permission to do anything you want to do with your physical fitness that you like. And nobody, of any level of knowledge or experience, can tell you that it’s “wrong.”

Now, before we get into the nitty gritty of what this means, let me add a couple of disclaimers. Doing whatever you like does not necessarily mean you will be doing the most effective form of exercise for your goals. Permission does not mean you will be maximally efficient, or even the slightest bit happier with what you’re doing. You may be wasting your time if you’re just horsing around in a directionless way.


But in your wild experimentations, you might also be doing something innovative. You may be on the verge of a breakthrough, if only a personal one.

And even if the movement/training plan was almost entirely ineffective from a traditional exercise standpoint… so what? Did you have a good time? Did you pass the time in a way more constructive than scrolling facebook on the phone? Did you learn anything?

Then no, you were not wasting your time. You have permission to have any goal you want. Or no goal at all. Or both.

Yes, you can do that.

Most people who walk into a gym can be timid or cautious to a fault, sticking only to familiar machines/movements, not asking questions. It takes a lot of courage to try a new kind of class, or even just to walk in the door of a new gym, much less ask a trainer for advice. So if you’ve done that, ever, give yourself a pat on the back. In doing so, you gave yourself permission to try something new. And you are better for it, even if it ended up not being your cup of tea.

You gave yourself a little bit of permission. And that’s progress in itself.

But even those who have been trying new things for a long time seem to shy away from giving themselves full and open permission. I’ve seen athletes who have been handling kettlebells for a decade or more, but have never actually looked at the kettlebell and said, “What else can I do with this thing?” They’ve never tried to press it by holding it bottoms-up, or cupped by the bottom. They’ve never tried juggling. Never used the handles as parallettes.

Sure, there are the fundamental movements that can get you the most “bang for the buck,” but is that actually what you want? Do you even like doing all those “essential” movements? Are you having fun? Are you learning anything?

Again, you can do whatever you want. Doesn’t matter how ridiculous. It doesn’t even have to have a point. If you want to do it, do it. You have permission if only because you don’t actually NEED it.

Permission is an amorphous thing, which might be why it doesn’t get discussed in fitness very much. It means only that you can do whatever you want. It doesn’t ask anything too specific of you, and in exchange it does not promise any particular results. But through permission, you might just find enlightenment.

All that said, as a trainer I do have some suggestions on how to best approach permission.

SAFETY. Make sure that what you’re trying is relatively safe for your current level. If you’re curious about trying a backflip, it’d be best to figure out how to do so somewhere soft, with supervision, before trying it alone in a concrete parking lot.

MINDFULNESS. Be thoughtful and patient. Pay attention. Read: leave your ego at the door. Trying something new or unusual is going to typically be more challenging than doing the same things you’ve always done. It’s worth being more attentive and taking your time. Be present.

CURIOSITY. Ask a lot of questions, of yourself and others. Be open to playing around with what you’re working on. If you’re doing it safely and mindfully, such play will help. No, there is not only one “ideal” way to squat — unless of course you want to increase your opportunity for injury in every other squat-related position. (One of my favorite training quotes: “You will always regret not training the position you got injured in.” – Dr. Andreo Spina Stagger your feet. Change your center of gravity. Alter your speed. Ask “how else?” and “why?” a lot. Some of it will work. Some of it won’t. Just keep doing it.

PURPOSE. What is the meaning behind your exploration? You have permission to do any movement, for any reason. But it is helpful to know the WHY. If only because it will imbue your EVERYTHING with greater quality and appreciation. It will also give you more realistic expectations. For instance, if you really want to run an obstacle course race and you want to see if you can do it without any specific training — that’s actually okay. As long as you understand the risks, and don’t necessarily expect to win. But if you don’t have the awareness that such a plan increases the difficulty of the race, and the possibility of injury, then you’re going to be DOUBLY hurt by your own unmet expectations.

I have a 6-day work week, involving early mornings every one of those days. So by the time I get to day 6, I’m usually pretty tired. The end of day 6 is not the day for me to plan my most intense workout of the week. Typically, if I work out at all on that day, I want it to be fun. It doesn’t even have to relate to whatever my primary training goals are — any movement at all on day 6 is a victory. Giving myself this permission for a weekly playdate completely altered how I approach my training, and brought a lot of joy back to my week. I needed to give myself permission to go easier on myself.

Sometimes I give myself permission to make minor deviations, based on what my body is telling me on a given day. My primary training for the past 3 months has been the GMB parallettes 1 program. It’s great. But it’s hard, and there are particular movements that I need to practice more. So I have, on several occasions, repeated a week instead of moving on. Or I’ve taken an entire week off from it. It’s called auto-regulation, and giving myself permission to listen to my body more openly has greatly improved just about every area of my training.

You don’t have to follow everything in a training plan, absolutely. (Though if you are being given a plan by a personal coach, incline towards trusting it. You have permission to not listen to your coach, certainly, but be aware that you’re probably going to drive them crazy and not make progress on your goals at the speed you like. Permission is double sided like that.)

There are times when my workouts get really weird. Thanks to Max Shank, I’ve recently been trying to do a get up with a jump box:

Bonus fun thing: the caption in that video is about this same topic!

Whenever someone (cool) posts a video like that, there are always (boring) people who ask “why?”

In response I might say:

Are we really so dull of a species that everything must be purposeful and maximally efficient to matter?

You’re assuming from the outset that “it’s fun for me” and “I was curious” are not good reasons to try something. When they are arguably the only real reasons. Or at least the only ones that will truly enhance one’s life as a whole.

You can do a workout that just involves 5 minutes of continuous repetition of one dance move. Or see how far you can crawl in one hour. I’m currently trying to get 100 jumps per day in. Doesn’t matter what kind. (Spoiler alert: it’s hard, especially if you try to get them all in as short of a time as possible.)

I guess what I’m saying here is: get weird. It’s okay. You can do that.

I know this is a lot of rambling. But, it’s my site and I can do what I want. Best thing I’ve done for my enjoyment of writing is to give myself permission, as well.