Our movie heroes have battled the elements, screamed through pain and emerged bloodied and bruised. It’s been entertaining and even inspiring. But have you ever tried doing that stuff? Unless you’re going to war (not the metaphorical kind) the cost of developing the level of mental toughness required simply may not be worth it. There’s little that is easy about effective training. Weights are heavy and marathons are long. You can fall off a mountain or drown in the ocean. These are known quantities. The real challenge is simple consistency. Prioritizing training over watching cat videos is tough enough for some. Never mind more serious trade-offs like missing out on career opportunities or time with friends and family. So, why do we think that working out barely counts unless your face is contorted in agony? Probably because we have been exposed to decades of dramatic montages. There are plenty of things that let you know when training is effective. You can test performance against a baseline; you can measure your speed of recovery; you can add pounds or speed to the bar; you can test how many times you repeat a task without losing speed or strength. There are a million different criteria that go into progress. Effort and mental fortitude are definitely important but they’re only a small part of the picture. When you prioritize effort above all else, it does more than suck the fun out of working out. It may actually hurt your results.
High Risk for Any Kind of Reward
Let me ask you a question: if you were hired to design workouts to destroy human knees, what would you do? You’d choose people with heavier bodies for starters. Next, you’d give them huge workloads to ensure they get as tired and floppy as possible; pushing well past the point of fatigue is key here. Obviously, you’d leave highly-trained runners out and keep only the hobbyists and newbies. It’s not quite taking a sledgehammer to someone’s kneecaps but it will often get the job done. And repetitive jumps, of course.
You’ll want to maximize impact in every single way. Programs like The Biggest Loser have showcased plenty of both. Unfortunately, seeing it onscreen has inspired people to emulate the same approach. Lower-impact activities like swimming, cycling, using a rowing machine, swinging a kettlebell or pushing a sled all work with far less risk. The only downside is that you don’t get as many close-ups of faces contorted in agony. Even moderately effective training 3-4 times per week like clockwork is going to yield better net results than going flat-out crazy in short bursts. A huge factor in maintaining that level of consistency is simply not getting injured.
I’ve been practicing some form of martial arts for most of my life. There’s always one guy that just wants to learn the secret move. Part of him believes that years of consistent training are for suckers. He wants to learn to balance on a thimble or blow out a candle with a palm strike. The hope is that this hidden skill will suddenly and permanently elevate him above the crowd. We often see that with other types of athletics too.
Beginners want to run convoluted drills or hot-step down agility ladders or strap a parachute onto their backs and run. These aren’t the basics. These are shenanigans. The truth is that real proficiency comes from years of practice. The stress resiliency that you develop (as described in the section above) is what elevates you above armchair quarterbacks who know what to do but have never had to demonstrate it in an environment more stressful than their living room.
In the world of strength and conditioning, skilled athletes with high levels of physical fitness earn the right to practice what we call special physical preparation. This type of training isolates an aspect of their sport and adds a specialized challenge to it. It is also easy to screw up. That’s why it’s always far more important to build a solid foundation in the basics.
Training a hockey player is not about wrapping a band around their stick and having them practice slap-shots. Training a boxer is not about handing them dumbbells and telling them to punch. Several things to factor in include how much time can be devoted to training most people; individual skill levels are important. You also have to ask whether a lack of physical ability is holding back further development of those skills. Don’t have the strength to change directions quickly? Your play on the field may suffer. Sucking wind after five moderately heavy squats? You may need some more aerobic work. These are the basics. Only once you’ve mastered those have you earned the right to ask if you have time to add something more specialized. Even then, you have to ensure that taking time to balance teacups on your head isn’t eating into more important practice.
Starting with Failure
You know the montage: we watch our hero fail over and over again. They suck. They crash. They burn. But they never give up. For storytelling purposes, this demonstrates tenacity. Unfortunately, it has very little to do with learning in the real world. Neither does the idea of introducing stress first and assuming that people are simply going to get used to it. You know the scene, the character is about to shoot a gun for the first time. Just before they pull the trigger, their instructor fires a round next to their ear, “That’s how it’s going to be in real life. You’d better get used to it.” How about no?
There’s no shortage of research within the military about skill acquisition. Nobody starts with live rounds. Learning is blocked out and performed safely (with minimal distraction). Only then can additional stressors be gradually added into the mix. Any teacher or coach worth their salt understands that the magic isn’t in giving people something they can’t do; it’s about providing just the right level of challenge. This magical little zone is where high levels of effort and focus are required but rewarded with consistent success. This is where peak performance – also known as being in ‘The Zone’ – takes place. It’s rewarding and, oddly enough, it’s enjoyable!
Skills can be trained to hold up to extreme stresses but that’s not where things begin. Exercise is good for you. Nobody is going to argue that. If you’ve had difficulty finding a plan and sticking to it, consider making things less painful, less dramatic and giving yourself the opportunity to succeed in every single training session with a legitimate yet sustainable amount of effort.