The growing importance of reading

I never thought I would be one of those parents who had to keep nudging their kids to read. I was an introvert who devoured books. When I was encouraged to play sports, in part because of my large build, I mostly stood idly on the sidelines fantasizing about stories. Then later, writing my own.

Of course, the children partially under my care are not my biological offspring. So maybe there really is a genetic component to characteristics like literary fervor. But I really don’t think that’s it. I think the ease and access of so many other forms of entertainment are just too alluring.

Kids these days (lord I hate hearing that phrase coming from me) spend more time reading captions on memes and as labels on YouTube videos than reading books. It worries me not because of some nostalgic longing for the days of paper books, but for what it means in our development, our ability to think critically, to communicate our needs and plans clearly, and to understand what is communicated to us.

Language is what allows us to cooperate and make progress. The better we get at it, the better our outcomes. When we understand less and cannot express ourselves well, we are gullible, vulnerable, easy to take advantage of. This was central to the idea of “newspeak” — the state-sponsored initiative to simplify language in the book 1984.

The powers-that-be — if you are the sort that believes in such a concept — benefit mightily from the average citizen’s ignorance. The closer we are to grunting animals, screaming at each other, lacking an empathetic connection, the less capable we are of solving the bigger, more complex problems that plague the collective.

The main difference between 1984 and the real world is that we didn’t need a government mandate to dial back our reading and language skills. We chose it, and continue to choose it.

We don’t seem to like or care about reading as much as we used to. Probably because it takes more work than other, more modern forms of consumption. With reading there is often a mulling over, an analysis, an interpretation. Such processing is more involved than an Instagram clip that was carefully crafted to get and keep your attention. Or a Netflix series with infinite auto-plays of subsequent episodes. Or Facebook feeds that can be scrolled infinitely, never requiring the action of clicking to a new page.

I don’t want to seem crotchety towards newer media. I do believe it all has its place. Digital media, information sharing, organizing opportunities — these have enabled incredible and swift responses to racial issues (Black Lives Matter) and misogyny/sexual harassment (#MeToo). These changes could not have galvanized so powerfully if not for modern methods. But the internet has its own flaws, such as the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 and the manipulation of elections — to say nothing of the various echo chambers created by online communities meant to keep out dissenting voices.

We cannot keep putting so much faith into the rarely-vetted digital world to construct our intellectual scaffolding. We need better context, followed by a continued practice of how to most effectively and independently think within that context. We need to personalize our lives, get to know ourselves by learning more things and communicating more effectively.

This, I think, can be done by reading more and better. It is an act that starts with a distinct choice. While digital media is jockeying for position via phone notifications and the like, picking up a book takes a little more initiative. It waits there for you to choose it. One is reflexive, while the other is intentional. 

The entirety of what follows grows from how it starts. If we are careless or passive in our consumption, the engine of our minds remains cold and disengaged. If we start by thinking about what to consume and how to consume it, we are more fully engaged before even encountering the information itself.

I do not have a good solution for how to convince more people to read often and well. It’s just something I cannot stop thinking about as I watch so many people I love struggle to find ways to express what they’re feeling, while also hardening to the similarly uncertain expressions of suffering from others.

But I’d like to figure it out. Maybe we could start by developing a practice of higher expectations for what we consume. It’s pretty safe to assume that a piece of text that’s riddled with vague suggestions and insults instead of facts is less likely to offer useful information than one that’s making at least a moderate effort at clarity, structure, and empathy.

While we do need fact checkers and researchers, recognizing the value of an article based on the quality of the writing and the evidence presented is a great first step to figuring out if it’s worth your time. If you don’t even know what good information looks like because you’ve not read a lot of it, you will accept almost anything. Especially if it conforms to your already rigid worldview. You will be fooled and manipulated, often — a soldier to someone else’s cause.

The falsehoods plaguing social media and shouting-match news shows aren’t even that good. They are rife with spelling and grammatical errors, full of logical fallacies and little to no evidence. It’s not that the people believing these things are stupid — it’s that the cumulative context that we are carrying onboard, in our own brains, is incredibly weak.

When we consume a diet of shallow information, we ourselves become shallow thinkers.

I understand the urge. The world is changing fast, and to those who take comfort in tradition and familiarity, it can be scary. But I don’t think the answer involves forwarding more memes or watching intense, opinionated videos. We need to have more time with information presented thoughtfully and well. Information that gives us room to form our own opinions and thoughts.

We need to learn to ask better questions and understand our own personalized role in the process of modern life. While I think the internet and technology more broadly can offer us much to complement this process, it most of all starts with a choice by the individual. That choice is to be present and participate from a place of humility, not just react and regurgitate.

And there’s just no better way to start a journey towards self-betterment than to read the experiences of others. Explore new worlds and ideas. Feel lost and confused and hopeful and scared.

Fixing the problems of this world is bigger than this little off-the-cuff essay, bigger than me. But given all the conflict out there it’s clear that a lot of us could stand to learn how to listen better and speak more clearly, without malice or ego. There’s simply no better way to improve one’s ability to communicate than reading more.

Let’s read more, together.

Strength has a greater purpose

On June 9th, 2020, StrongFirst posted an image on social media that said “The StrongFirst team agrees that racism is wrong.” Beneath that was the text:

Concerning the latest events, the one thing that everyone on the StrongFirst team agrees on is that racism is wrong. On all related issues our team members have diverse and strong opinions—and StrongFirst is not going to force a company stance to represent them.

StrongFirst does not engage in political activism and virtue signaling. We choose to exercise our political rights as individuals, not as a company.


StrongFirst could have done much better than this.

The tone and language of their post indicates that they are indeed taking a position on the issue at hand. That position is: “StrongFirst supports the status quo.” They also are under the mistaken impression that taking action against racial injustice is either political in nature or is something that people just pretend to support in order to seem virtuous.

Beyond that, the post shows that StrongFirst lacks a complete picture of life and health, pretending that racial discrimination isn’t a core aspect of that.

Last and most importantly, the post rendered the StrongFirst motto “strength has a greater purpose” completely meaningless. Although they point to this motto often in their seminars and written materials, they do not believe they have any responsibility to help lead their community or unite them in any way.

StrongFirst supports the status quo

We are all part of a larger culture, and from time to time will be called upon to participate in that culture. If you don’t like it, tough. Get over yourself. You exist, so you are part of all this.

No person and no company is an island. One of the most basic realities of decision making is that not making a decision IS a decision. In this case, the choice of no action means they are siding with the status quo. 

“Racism is wrong” shouldn’t even be up for debate and it’s not even what the current conversation is about. The current conversation is about whether society is going to tolerate continued manifestations of racism, most especially the blatant violence against blacks.

On that, StrongFirst could not reach a consensus. Think about that. They could only agree that “racism is wrong.”

Topics on which they could not fully agree:

  • The constant killing of black people is worth our attention and has to stop, now.
  • The justice system should not punish black people to a greater degree than it does white people.
  • Changes need to be made to StrongFirst and our broader culture. This is a time to reexamine our behavior at every level.

They could not make a statement beyond “racism is wrong” because the company ultimately supports the status quo. “Racism is wrong” is a passive message that does nothing to change the realities blacks in America still face every day. Almost no one (save for the most extreme and fervent white supremacists) would argue with the statement, “racism is wrong,” yet most of us engage in some form of racism, whether we like it or not. The key is taking an active stance in righting those wrongs, in doing the hard work necessary to fight racism head on.  

Co-opting diversity

When StrongFirst states that the leadership agrees racism is wrong but is diverse in all other ways, that likely means that there are at least some folks there who also believe that killing George Floyd was fine. Or believe that racism is bad but systemic racism is a myth.

Cognitive dissonance is a central part of the human experience, and there are few places it rears its head quite like racism. StrongFirst was careful in its selection of words, as demonstrated by including the word “diverse” in their statement. That was no mistake. 

Every softcore racist I know on Facebook and Instagram has posted about how “we need to respect ALL human beings” and how “I’m all about love and equality,” while also often pointing out the criminality (and thus deserved fate) of the murdered, defending the cops, condemning the protests… but never saying something as simple as “the killing has to stop” or asking what they can do. The corporate version of saying “all lives matter” is to say this is too political and they’re not going to take a side.

Inventing politics 

Plenty of businesses have put out short statements that were MUCH stronger than StrongFirst. They didn’t get political or wade into complex territory. I would ask the StrongFirst team to read some of these statements and tell everyone which parts they could not agree on or were “too political.”

Agatsu blew them out of the water with their statement. The USPA were very thoughtful in their response. Mark Fisher Fitness had several great posts. NASCAR immediately started examining things and making changes. StrongFirst’s closest rival, RKC, used nearly the same number of words in their statement — and still did it better! Oh, and let’s not forget that even Jazzercise was stronger than StrongFirst on this.

This is not a political issue. Much of the discussion that follows can become political because it involves legislation or judicial decisions. But at its core, it’s not political — it’s ethical. Period. 

  • Do you think it’s wrong to actively kill black people more often, based on different standards than white people? 
  • Do you think the various inequalities that pervade our culture are real or a myth? 
  • Do you think something should be done to change that? 

These are the kinds of questions being asked, and they’re not political. Many of the answers are clear and factual, such as the reality of broadly different health outcomes for black people. Also, there are democrats, republicans, independents, and non-voters who are on both sides of this issue. It’s not party-specific. It’s human.

Denying authenticity 

Most telling was the use of the pejorative “virtue signaling,” which was by far the worst part of the statement. Virtue signaling is when someone is just expressing loud and conspicuous approval or disgust at an idea. So, based on how they’re using the term, they think that going as far as saying “killing black people is wrong” is something people primarily say for the sake of making themselves seem virtuous. They don’t think people actually believe it. 

Automatically assuming people are pushing StrongFirst for a statement because those people want to make themselves look good and feel better is incredibly dark and cynical. People are rightfully angry about the state of race in this country and the world. They aren’t pretending to be angry just to act like they’re better than you. They are concerned about very real issues and you are brushing them off as fakers.

If that was not the case, they would not have used the words they did. StrongFirst stated quite clearly that they do not engage in politics or virtue signaling, meaning they think anything beyond “racism is bad” is in one or both of those categories.

For the record, stating your beliefs or asking other people to state theirs is not virtue signaling. It’s just basic discussion, and it helps lead to a better understanding of the kind of teacher and leader you are. Which is incredibly important in the fitness industry.

This issue has been going on for centuries and aggressive change is needed RIGHT NOW. The status quo isn’t working and we need more people and groups to pitch in. We are the most successful species because we have the ability to evolve faster than any other animal, via culture and communication. We don’t have to wait for biology to shift us — we can discuss and debate and change NOW, in our lifetime! Knowing that, having that ability, and choosing not to use it is abhorrent to all but the most mentally and emotionally stagnant because it’s simply inhuman. 

Acting like it’s a great big unfair inconvenience to be asked to make a statement is pretty weak when people are being killed and you’re in a position to make a positive difference, even a relatively small one.

They made the collective decision to disregard what should otherwise be pretty clear ethical behavior.

StrongFirst is uninterested in a complete picture of health

Health is not just about physical wellbeing. Ethics, compassion, nutrition, right thinking, recovery, happiness, strength, and fitness are all very tightly related. Neglecting one hurts everything else, and issues of racial injustice directly affect the ability of individuals and groups to become healthy and stay that way.

An athlete’s relationship with their coach and fitness community is incredibly intimate and personal. Coaches who only provide instructions on movements, count reps, then call it a day rarely keep clients for long. Conversation, interaction, mental and emotional support, welcoming community — these are the kinds of things that make the difference between a real-life coach and impersonal methods like an app, book, video, or one-size-fits-all online program.

Striving to support ethical companies and individuals is a noble goal. When the product/service being provided involves physical training, development of my cognition, or is going into my body via food or medicine — I’d like it to come from a place of solid ethics. For instance, I would prefer to not eat factory farmed meat whenever possible.

Being prodded for some thoughts can, at the very least, be considered a reasonable investigation of product efficacy by the consumer. I think it’s important to know whether a person or group I’m associated with are the types who are okay with people being murdered based on the color of their skin.

In short: as a provider of health services, your ethics offer insight into your product. These issues are all about health as an individual and society.

Smarter, better informed people than I have written in great detail about health inequality. If you are a company even tangentially connected to health, it’s worthwhile to pause for a second to consider whether you are basically part of the problem or part of the solution in this regard.

You can’t just claim to be concerned with healthy living and strength when it’s convenient for you. StrongFirst’s statement implies that the state of things doesn’t concern them, when in fact, it concerns us all.

I do not expect StrongFirst to get into every possible aspect of health at their seminars or in their written materials. But at the very least, it’s reasonable to expect them to not completely dismiss key elements of health outright. Speaking and behaving ethically, treating your fellow human beings equitably, and making sure everyone feels welcome are central elements of happy and healthy living.

Change, too, is important and healthy. 

StrongFirst has changed their certification manuals many times over the years, carefully refining them into incredibly clear and concise powerhouses of kettlebell and strength knowledge. But has anyone at StrongFirst ever said, “I sometimes feel like we don’t get many black people at our seminars. Is there something about our approach that might make certain groups steer clear of us?” Or “What can we do to be more inclusive?” Or how about, “What can we do to improve our language to get the attention of a broader group of people?” If so, were those questions truly heard and acted upon?

These sorts of questions are healthy. Improving your vocabulary and how you speak as a whole is not submitting to what many see as “pansy-ass liberal ideas” about political correctness. It’s just showing you are capable of growing and learning. Perhaps sometimes political correctness does go off the rails, but far more often, it’s just that we are stubborn creatures who reflexively reject any need to make personal change. 

We bristle the moment we hear something with which we disagree, and we won’t even give it a moment’s consideration. I think this is one of humankind’s most unhealthy habits. And it’s perfectly reasonable for people to want to know if their coaches are like that, whatever it is they are teaching.

Strength has a greater purpose

There is no greater purpose to strength than to stand up for what is right. Refusing to defend the weak, the marginalized, the victimized, the oppressed — means StrongFirst has lost credibility when it comes to speaking of higher purpose. They can continue to talk about strength as relates to muscles and moving weight, but their own stated philosophy has collapsed. 

I can’t imagine what other greater purpose they imagine there to be. Money? Control? Abs? Fear? Domination? 

How bad do things have to get to compel you into action? What is more worthy as an application of strength than this?

Would you use your strength if the curtain came down and the opponents started clearly stating that the goal is genocide or a return to slavery? Or is that still too “political” for you?

When called upon to use your strength in a way that could contribute to the greatest positive change in our lifetime, your core reaction was to pass on it. I hope you never forget that.

The strength obtained via StrongFirst methodology is apparently intended primarily for show. You can learn how to press a kettlebell really well from them, but don’t expect to learn how to apply that strength in any meaningful way. That part is just posturing.

Basically, they are getting defensive about being called to task on their own motto.

Conclusion

StrongFirst really dropped the ball with their statement on current events.

They spoke up only to clarify that they are keeping with the status quo. They have misunderstood the issues and their impact on individual and societal health. Most disappointingly, they are a fitness company that is built on the idea of strength having a greater purpose, but they will not elaborate on what that purpose could be and they certainly won’t be a part of something real and meaningful. 

I wish StrongFirst had said more. I really wanted them to walk the walk.

I still think they have some of the best hardstyle kettlebell material out there, and I don’t think their whole business should be torn down just because they made a social media post that is poorly worded at best, morally anemic at worst. But at the very least, they did tremendous damage to their overall philosophy and ethical authority with their statement.

Maybe it won’t affect them noticeably, and they’ll get the same attendance levels at seminars with no financial impact (doubtful, but possible). But that still wouldn’t make them right. They’ll still be the strong folks who collectively decided to stay on the sidelines during the biggest fight for racial equality this generation has seen.

It’s a mistake to hide in your “courage corner” in a time like this. I want StrongFirst, its coaches, and its athletes to manifest that “strength has a greater purpose” motto. I want all of us to get past this most fundamental point: that something needs to be done, and we need participation from as many people as possible.

Society doesn’t need any more people of strength being apathetic. We don’t need more people and organizations who lack the emotional capacity to process the challenges of a dynamic world. We need people who are capable of taking their courage into the real world and applying it.


[For additional resources/points of discussion, click here.]

Quick resources on race


For most of my life I’ve been the type who would say he supported equal rights. However, the intensity with which I offered such support was calibrated in large part by what information was actually making it in front of my eyes. And the truth is that the American education system as well as the media machine do not put adequate emphasis on injustice against black people. They only hit the major points, but even that often is influence by a desire not to inflame too much.

This latest eruption of protests and social media discussion have brought forth a flood of stories and history of which I was not aware. Even more shocking than the stories themselves is the persistent question, “WHY DIDN’T I ALREADY KNOW THIS?”

That’s a question to be answered by people smarter and more capable than myself. For my part, I just want to share links to those things that I’ve learned in the past couple of weeks. Maybe you didn’t know some of these, either. Hopefully they’ll soften your heart a little bit. Take a breath, set your politics aside, and consider what you really think about these.

Clever/real rebuttals on many of the common complaints about the protests

Tulsa massacre

Civil Rights photos were rendered in black and white to make them look older than they were.

Wage theft

Brief history of racial terrorism in America

Use of prison labor for profit (AKA the slavery loophole)

Companies that utilize prison labor

Seneca Village

Ruby Bridges

Antiracism resources

Google docs with tons of resources for petitioning and donation.

“I’m the Marine who stood at attention for 3 hours in 100 degree heat in full dress uniform until I nearly passed out from heat exhaustion and dehydration. Do me the honor of reading this message I’ve spent the last two days preparing.”

Striving for a better coaching attitude

Recently there was an article in The Atlantic about Ido Portal. If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s a great article.

Ido has floated on my training periphery for several years. I’ve heard some really enthusiastic support for him and his style, in equal measure with less-than-flattering stories about him. I listen to such things but try not to attach to them, because my only exposure to him has been random videos and secondhand reports. He does share some great movement tips, and I learned what would become one of my favorite movements from him — the diagonal stretch.

I had no opinion about Portal as a person or coach… up until reading this article.

Of all the things he said, one thing jumped out at me most of all — if only because it was repeated in various forms several times: Ido does not want to spend much (if any) time training people who are not already absolute die-hards about movement.

I can understand this. As a trainer myself, I would always rather have a client who is hardcore invested than a lukewarm one. Always. I would, in fact, rather be receiving a lower training rate with a client who is a hard-working, thoughtful, curious type than one who doesn’t really care all that much, but pays me well. It is more enriching for myself and my clients when this is the case.

But also, that’s so very much the easy way out. One of the coaches I used to work with was the same as Portal — he wanted to have athletes walk into the gym already hungry, already basically knowledgeable and clear in their understanding and intent.

That’s making a career out of doing the easy part. I don’t think most people need to know how to do a one-arm pull-up. Most people need help with basics. And many coaches avoid spending much time on the basics because the truth is that that part is harder to convey that the elite work.

Teaching the basics to a true newbie is frustrating. It’s hard. It feels impossible. And this is precisely why you’ll never see much in the way of a popular, widely-read feature piece about teaching squat mechanics to office workers. It’s challenging work. It can be monotonous. Which means it’s challenging to write about in any sort of way that people would want to read.

So, I get it. There is more visible glory in thinking like Portal and those like him. In turning life into a competition, in focusing on the “elites.” There’s good money there, for less frustrating work. I’m not making an ethical judgment on the choice.

What I personally would like to see in the “movement community” (or however one might think of it), though, is something more welcoming. Something compassionate without getting comically touchy-feely. All of my favorite teachers I’ve met in the fitness community — people like Dave Whitley, Dan John, Shawn Mozen and Sara-Clare at Agatsu, and of course Ryan Hurst and everyone at GMB — do indeed have great information. But more importantly, they really know how to teach. That is, they know how to deftly and cleverly speak the languages of all levels. They are smart and accessible and PATIENT.

These are the qualities I wish to emulate as a coach, and to refine and shape into my own style.

I mean honestly, do we really need more dudebros taking selfies of their deadlift PR, sneering at how little weight you’re benching, and mocking running/cardio? Do we really need MORE gyms and coaches who are not particularly welcoming?

Ido Portal has some fantastic things to teach us. And right now, he’s arguably the person with the tallest podium and loudest microphone within the movement community. So he’s getting the message out there, and that’s fantastic. But I don’t just want to talk to the athletes who are already “there.” I don’t want to make people feel bad for training differently, for needing a little more help and guidance, for only being able to show up one time a week (if that).

I don’t want to sneer at, mock, or belittle anybody. If I can help it, I don’t want anyone I encounter to feel “less than.”

I do understand that I can’t possibly reach literally everyone. Nor do I think I am talented/mature enough to perfectly succeed at the above stated goals. But I firmly believe I can reach more people if I put in the extra time to reach out to those people who are lukewarm, anxious, and/or confused about how to train well. I can practice communication and kindness in the exact same way that I train my handstand. I don’t want to just coach those who’ve already “got it.” That feels self-limiting to me. I want to reach as many people as I can, by being a better me — not just by expecting a better them.

Isn’t training for self-betterment really what all of this is about? The emotional and philosophical can and should be trained just like our physical bodies.

We need more teachers sharing the types of content that Ido is putting out there, absolutely. But the movement community — and gym culture as a whole — could use much less of an elitist attitude. The cocky, experienced person at the gym rolling their eyes at the newbies, telling them why they shouldn’t be there, making fun of overweight individuals (or even taking photos/videos to mock them with later), is such a cliche at this point. It has a chilling effect on we as a culture making forward progress in fitness. (The Atlantic article even starts with the word “bro.”)

I need work in this area, too. I’m not perfect. It starts with a coach being willing to say: I’m going to do my best to not be an asshole, and to patiently help anyone who comes to me no matter what level they’re at. If you want to work with me, I’ll give you my best. If I can’t do that for whatever reason, I’ll refer you to someone who can. But I’m pretty exhausted by the strutting and bullying and exclusion aspects of this industry. We should do better. I should do better.

I wrote all of the above pretty soon after the article came out. But then it’s just sat there. Something about my response didn’t feel right, and I think I know what it is.

Even though I am not a fan of the “only want to train die-hard athletes” mentality put forth in that article, I want to draw a clear line between the big-name teachers and the gyms that follow or borrow from the associated philosophy. The “face” of a particular method may be disagreeable in some ways, but gyms associated with that person can be fantastic.

I’ve been nothing but impressed by Ido Portal associated gyms. It all depends on who is running the gym, of course. I’ve also been blown away by some of his disciples. Roye Goldschmidt is a particular favorite of mine to follow, not least of which because he’s a tall guy and still doing all that impressive stuff. He’s an inspiration to me and my fellow tall guys. (Though I can’t speak to his teaching style, as I’m just an internet fanboy.)

So my comments are in no way meant to disparage the material or the gyms that teach it. On the contrary, I want more coaches and gyms to teach it to more people — not less! And definitely not just those with a ton of money and time. That slice of the population gets smaller all the time.

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.

Maybe.

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 https://gmb.io/resilience/) 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.

Crawlspace workout

This past January, on a Monday night at around 8 PM, I was pulling into my driveway after a long day of work. My house has a small carport with a storage closet where my bikes and some yard tools live. So I was not expecting to see a sheet of fast-flowing water pouring out from beneath the door. But I immediately knew what it was: the cold temperatures had caused a pipe to burst.

While I was grateful that this had only been going for a short time and was occurring somewhere that I could see clearly (as opposed to under the house), I was tired and frustrated and may have thrown a little bit of a temper tantrum before trying to figure things out. Not looking forward to hanging around outside or in a crawlspace on a Monday night in 16-degree weather.

Plumbing issues are not my strong point. Which is to say that I was pacing around frantically, googling how to shut off the main water line in my house. Several pages informed me that the main water shut off should be near the entrance to the crawl space. Mine was not.

My crawl space is vast and low. It is filled with pipes and wires and columns, many of which look mismatched and randomly placed from years of changes and repairs. Once I realized the internet was not going to be much help in this case, I set out to find the shutoff valve as fast as possible.

And in so doing, I ended up having a fantastic time. I’ve been training with GMB methods and programs for well over a year now, and as a result was able to maneuver around beneath the house with grace and ease. Locomotion work with the Elements program in particular was most helpful of all. I stepped and dove and crawled and rolled around all these obstacles, all the while feeling like a spy dodging motion-sensor lasers. I found the valve — which ended up being in the furthest possible corner — and shut it off. Then I sat in the dirt and smiled.

This was my favorite practical application of my training, thus far. It’s the kind of thing I think about when people ask me why I train so often/hard. I want to be able to find joy in my body and mindset even in a crisis moment. I want to feel safe climbing a tall ladder to paint a high wall, because I know my balance is solid and that even if something went wrong I can respond to it quickly and well. Or worse still, if something completely out of my control like a car wreck occurs, I want to know that I’ve done what I could to make myself resilient so that I might continue living happily in this beautiful world.

I train not just to be prepared for the worst, but to make every moment better. For me, solid physical fundamentals is not a vanity thing, much less a chore. Rather, it’s a chance to enhance everything. Even a late night in a cold crawlspace.

My GMB apprenticeship experience

I investigate, study, and practice pretty much anything that piques my curiosity. Especially in fitness. If it’s a particularly intriguing modality/system, I’ll probably sign up to attend a certification or seminar. At very least, I have a major problem of buying way too many training-related books. It’s just such a small price to pay to really expand my horizons. At Legitimate Movement, we have a great big wall of certifications to show how much we are invested in learning new things…

But sometimes, life gets in the way.

At the beginning of 2017 I was encountering a pretty heavy onslaught of work, personal life turbulence, and generally just a lot of internal reflection. I badly wanted to travel around to learn some new things, but I’d just bought a house and had a gym to run after moving into a much larger new space. It was starting to look like I wouldn’t have much time for as much travel and learning as I’d normally prefer.

Then I remembered that GMB, a group that I’d up till that point only known about through Facebook, offered an apprenticeship program consisting of, essentially, distance learning. No in-person seminars, but nonetheless full immersion in their training methods over the course of about three months. I applied, and was accepted to start in September 2017.

Their apprenticeship page has a fair amount of information about this unique experience. Still, I have attended so many seminars that seem to have very similar formats and requirements, so anything that deviates from that familiar template might as well be a trip to Mars. Really, all I knew was this recurring thought train I kept having: “This seems expensive… but it’s also three months of pretty steady professional attention and feedback. So it’s got to offer more bang for the buck than a $1000 in-person seminar that only lasts for one weekend.”

I had no idea what I was in for, really. Everything about the GMB apprenticeship ended up surprising me, and ultimately turned every preconception I had about training and the way it could be taught on its head. This would end up being the most difficult and rewarding physical endeavor I’ve ever undertaken, professionally or otherwise. It was alternately frustrating, ecstatic, reflective, exhausting, unrelenting, and enlightening in turn — usually some combination of all of those things. This program gave me the most nuanced and detailed professional feedback I’ve ever received about my movement quality, strengths, and weaknesses.

Suffice to say, the apprenticeship was worth every penny.

Of what did the GMB apprenticeship consist?

You may have noticed that I tend to ramble. So I’ll try to bottom-line this part a bit. In just over three months, the GMB trainer candidates in my group went through all of GMB’s foundational programs: Elements, Integral Strength, Vitamin, and Focused Flexibility. Additionally, we were also doing 20-30 minutes of handstand work per day. For me, all this work came out to at least two hours of training per day, usually more like three hours spread throughout the day, 5-6 days/week. For the entire apprenticeship. That’s a lot. Despite none of the work being of the high-intensity-interval-training sort, it was still a lot of volume.

Also, videos. Since the apprenticeship is all online, I was filling up my phone’s memory on a daily basis to take videos and post for feedback. Beyond that, we were also asked to post in-depth about what we were experiencing during this intense training. So many videos. Which for me might have been the hardest part of all. Years ago I remember being at a friend’s house when they listened to the messages on their answering machine. As one of the messages played I thought, “Wow that person sure sounds timid and nasally,” before realizing that it was, in fact, me. “Do I really sound like that all the time?” I asked. They politely changed the subject. That’s roughly the feeling I got from taping myself so much. It was difficult and humbling to see so much of my movement on a regular basis.

Additionally, there were written assignments to be shared on the GMB trainer forum. And these weren’t simple, either. In addition to giving you direct feedback on your athleticism, the apprenticeship also addressed:

  • How to teach these movements and the overall GMB philosophy to others
  • How to plan, structure, and promote your own workshops
  • How to establish and develop your individual classes as well as your business as a whole

I generally dislike interacting via online forums, but I honestly can’t think of a better way they could’ve done this. Online training, especially if interactive, is an area of fitness that is really only in its infancy. I’m excited about what the future might hold in that regard, but for now the forum aspect is just something we have to live with.

As I’ve witnessed in the apprenticeship group that followed mine, GMB is always updating the trainer experience. So no two apprenticeship cohorts are necessarily going to follow identical programming. But, this is a good thing. GMB is comprised of true professionals guided by an ever-evolving love of what they do. As such, they are open to positive change and honest discussion about how to be better teachers in addition to improving the quality of the subjects they teach.

The current mood of American culture seems to still be inspired by the politics of 2004, when rigidity was championed and “flip-flopping” — AKA, being smart and humble enough to thoughtfully change one’s mind or evolve one’s views — was frowned upon. But now, as then, I get nervous whenever I’m trained by a coach who doesn’t seem open to new ideas. GMB seems to be constantly examining what they’re doing, and I appreciate that.

All in all, it’s a very cerebral experience. You don’t just have to learn and practice the movements, you have to develop a sense of HOW to think about training. They do not require that you develop into a carbon copy of other GMB trainers. Rather, you have to take the more difficult path of investigating within yourself to discover and cultivate your own inner purpose as a professional. Which is very hard, but immensely rewarding.

Okay, enough meandering reflection for now. Let’s do some details.

What I most got out of the experience

Much of what I learned seems like common sense. And indeed, I would say that I “knew” a lot of what we would focus on, conceptually speaking. But, not really. There’s a difference between “knowing” that the ocean is deep vs. climbing into a pressurized metal capsule and traveling into the depths yourself. GMB changed my “common sense” into practical understanding. Here’s the big stuff:

Little details are important. Start at the bottom of a pull up, do your pulling prep to get into position, finish through strong and controlled. This is the kind of thing that anyone who trains basically knows. And then doesn’t do. The biggest one for me in this regard was when we practiced inverted presses. I was repeatedly told to straighten out my back, pull my belly button in, and push hard into the floor to get that extra little bit of end-range force. I “knew” to do that. But I wasn’t doing it. Chris and Ryan sure as hell made sure I started doing those things. Those guys have the patience of saints.

Real accountability is powerful. If you’re having to record a video of yourself doing a movement, knowing it will then be picked apart on a message board, you start to pay more attention. You don’t necessarily have to record all your workouts, but it’s important to check in with someone else from time to time. Especially if particular skills/goals are important to you. Dan John has said in person and in writing, on many occasions, that even he still pays for a personal trainer for himself. Hate mobility work but know you need to do it? Have trouble getting to the gym in the first place? Figure out how to make yourself accountable.

Videotaping oneself all the time is humbling. I said this already, but it’s worth repeating. So. Humbling. Right up there with leaving a hand mirror on the floor accidentally, then glancing down at it just as you’re about to get in the shower. No room for an ego after a view like that.

There’s no better way to improve a skill than consistency. For me, this showed most in the handstand. I’ve said that I’ve been working on my handstand for years, and that it just wasn’t getting any better. Turns out the problem is that I was full of shit. Apparently “working on” means “more often than 10 minutes every few months.” Who knew? Once I was working on my handstand for 15-30 minutes/day, it started to improve real fast.

There’s always a higher level. For everything. Don’t let this discourage you — let it raise you up. Since there’s no real peak, then you might as well…

Enjoy the process. If you’re getting frustrated all the time, not enjoying your workouts, complaining about your goals not being reached as fast as you like, you’re missing the point. Training is not a chore. Training is living. It’s attentiveness. You just have to find what kind of training brings you joy, and identify with why you’re doing it. Be present. Feel what you’re doing. Enjoy yourself.

The apprenticeship is particularly strong on that last point. While you do have to meet particular movement standards in order to become a GMB trainer, they are flexible on the timeline and approach each individual thoughtfully. They reminded us, often, to stop taking ourselves so seriously and have a little more fun.

Keep returning to the basics. And slow down. Keep slowing down. More. I’ve played my share of sports and been completely immersed in training for most of my 30s now. I’ve done thousands and thousands of push ups in my life. That was the movement I was least interested in doing, recording, and receiving feedback on. But each time I posted a video of it, I was given feedback. And most of that feedback was simple: slow down. Really, that piece of advice is like 80% of what I was told. Eventually, I was posting videos of me just doing one push up over the course of 30-60 seconds. And was told, essentially, “You’re almost there!”

It started to resemble this scene from Good Will Hunting. Just replace “it’s not your fault” with “slow down” and you’ve got a pretty good overview of my apprenticeship experience.

My push up is better now than it’s ever been.

What was the outcome?

Have a look. First, here’s the video I sent in. GMB asks that trainer candidates send in videos of where they’re at on particular movements. I’ll admit, some part of me feels embarrassed to post this — but part of the process of being a solid athlete is being willing to look honestly at where you’re starting from. So this is where I was at in March 2017.

That was probably my best free-standing handstand till that point.

For comparison, here’s what my handstand looked like at the beginning of 2018, soon after my time in the apprenticeship.

This is what they look like during most of my practice these days. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s an enormous improvement in a very short time. The handstand is but one example of the changes I underwent. At 37 years old, I feel stronger, more agile, and generally more capable than I ever have in my life. I have no chronic pain at all. While my mobility can always be improved, physical limitations due to tight or crampy muscles feels distinctly like a thing of the past.

I couldn’t be happier with my self-image and movement capabilities as I am right now. And much of that I owe to GMB.

Bonus stuff!

I barely paid any attention to the business development aspect of the apprenticeship, initially. I’ve been to so many certifications that quickly breeze through topics like:

  • How to get and keep clients
  • How to program well
  • Mindset
  • Recovery

These things are hard to address. Trainers like to train, so they spend most of their time developing that. For professional trainers, the practical realities of running a business produce in them the same kinds of excuses that other people use when talking about training! But the GMB puts some serious thought and work into educating their trainers on how to be better professionals and develop those tougher skills. It was great. They mention it in their description of the apprenticeship, and I touched on it above, as well, but it deserves extra emphasis as a bit of a bonus I wasn’t really expecting to be quite this good.

This was so much more than learning how to do a few cool bodyweight moves.

After completing the apprenticeship, I also had the chance to attend at two-day seminar just for the GMB trainers in Palo Alto, CA in February. It was the best weekend of training advice and meeting like-minded people that I’ve had in my fitness career. And it was free!

Honestly, every penny of the GMB apprenticeship was worth it before I even found out about the free seminar opportunity. After that, it went from being a “pretty good deal” to “an absolute steal.”

Bottom line

Of all the certifications I’ve pursued in my years as a trainer, none have been so rigorous as the GMB apprenticeship. This is clearly not a money grab, or an attempt to build an Empire. Not least of which because you get more value per dollar for your investment than anywhere else, and because it’s challenging enough to weed out the lukewarm folks who just want the piece of paper. You have to care. You have to pay attention and be consistent.

Increasing control, in particular, isn’t just like gaining a new body. It’s more radical than that. Like gaining a new limb. Tentacles, or maybe a prehensile tail. Feeling this much better in my own body in only a few months is something that is absolutely priceless.

There is no way this winter is ever going to end

The inconsistent winter weather of North Carolina inspired a dream a couple of weeks ago, and with the sudden drop in temperature today it’s relevant to share.

A wizard and I were walking through a forested area, everything slightly brown and brittle from the cold. He looked like Johnny Cash, which may have inspired the dubious looks I was giving him.

“How do I even know you’re a real wizard?” I asked.

“Tomorrow it will be freezing outside.”

“Knowing that doesn’t make you a wizard,” I scoffed, “You could’ve just checked the weather app for that. Anyone can.”

“Yes, but what nobody else knows is that this winter is never going to end,” he paused and looked at me gravely, “and neither will your sadness.”

Rude.

What I want to write about

Lots. But there are certain topics that are most strongly on my mind these days.

The career lifespan of fitness professionals is about five years. Or 1-3 years, depending on who you ask. That’s when people start dropping off, either from loss of interest or total burnout. But, five years is a good point to reflect, regardless of industry. It’s a good standard for relationships, too. And coaching is all about forming relationships, so it’s a double duty opportunity.

I’m right at five years. During which time I’ve worked harder than any other period of my life. I definitely need to reflect. I want to write about what that yields.

Exercise, games, sport, play, feats of strength and practicing of skills — these are fundamental human qualities that keep one’s mind sharp and quality of life high. Thoughtful strength and movement training is important, and offers a high return on personal investment. But it’s also a challenging industry, and there’s a lot of information of varying quality to wade through.

I’d like to see a more thoughtful, less dogmatic conversation between adherents of different training modalities. There’s an opportunity here to build a more positive, evolved, constructive, sincere, fun, and considerably less macho training community.

Speaking of: I also want to write about modern masculinity. We are in a very interesting time with a lot of shifts in what society needs and expects from its men. And what they expect of themselves. I, for one, could very much use such a discussion.

I read a lot, and I miss doing book reviews. I used to write reviews often on Goodreads, but became disillusioned with the number of people who would take a review, from a stranger, on the internet, as a personal slight. Especially this one fellow who had it out for me over my negative review of The Road. I love discussing books, and all the wonderful ideas and characters within. But I’d like to see less dogma around it. (Sensing a theme yet?) I dream of a world with less “OMG you didn’t like The Secret?” Or, just as bad or worse, “You haven’t read/seen/listened to/watched [INSERT MEDIA HERE]?” If you think the thing is important, tell me why. There’s way too much media to consume it all, and your habitual shock that I’ve not gotten to the things you have yet benefits nobody.

Which brings me to possibly my most major focus here: communication. Man, do we have some fucked up ideas around communication. How do we improve this? As individuals, but also as a society? We get most of our entertainment out of variations of watching the misfortunes of others. We celebrate callouts and gotchas. We’re all anxious, but we’re all shits to each other. Nobody gives each other room to make mistakes. It was pretty shocking to read a book originally published in 1964 that’s still somehow the most currently relevant thing I can remember reading.

Communication fascinates me. Not the least of which because I’m terrible at it, too. But I’m trying. I want to be better at communication, and so many other things. I want to write about that.

But really I just want to write. It helps me sort my mind, and gives me a place to practice better thinking and clearer communication. I train my body at the gym; I want to train my mind, as well. It needs it, as I’ll surely demonstrate in coming posts.