Questions & Answers: Generalism & Modality Combination

Just received this question:


Great article. How might a workout look if you’re combining modalities and only have a few days a week to train? I have a job and a kid; I can’t wander the world looking for new ways to move just because!

-Tyler Skanner, Austin, TX

Thanks Tyler,

So here’s a workout I did earlier this week that attempts to bridge some modalities into a comprehensive “General Generalist” routine:

  • The main thrust of my workout was ring training akin to the sample program provided by GMB here.
  • In addition, I was performing trap bar deadlift, which I actually started the routine with while I warmed up my shoulders and did handstand work (I always start with handstands).
  • So after the handstands, deadlifts, and light ring work, I moved into the main exercises. Between sets I performed Movnat combos similar to those found at these links:
  • At the end of the workout, I went for a long walk just because.
  • Later that evening, I did a pre-bed movement flow that touches on some play elements and shoulder/back stretching elements like down dog, cat/camel, and super pigeon.

On my “non-training” days, I usually end up playing with my son in the backyard, so lots of long jumps, cartwheels, and body levers. In addition, I’ll break out the slackline and carry him on that.

Note that in the “added” combo work between work sets, the focus is always on quality. There’s a rough number guide, but it’s mostly about keeping it pretty, being efficient, moving with grace…those are the goals.

What is a “generalist” anyway?

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”— Robert Heinlein

That quote has been kicking around for ages and is often used as a description for why human beings shouldn’t aspire, as a course of action, to specialize if one’s goal is to become a fully-functioning human animal on as many ecological levels as possible. Our great uniqueness, if we have it beyond the ability to sweat & run (and opposable thumbs), is our ability to combine many mediocrities into an advantage based on the context in which the action takes place. Our big brains create complex motor patterns better than any other creature, can adopt them quickly though not perfectly.

Let’s step back: who wants to be mediocre? Well let’s define it (via Webster’s):


adjective \ˌmē-dē-ˈō-kər\

: not very good

:  of moderate or low quality, value, ability, or performance :  ordinary, so-so
Alright that still doesn’t seem like it’s making my case, right? Mediocre, by definition, is comparative within a specific domain. Specialists compared against one another or laypersons. But if you compare the skills against a general population, suddenly it’s pretty good. Like a 30 second handstand is nothing compared to what Yuri Marmarstein can do, but compared to the general population, you are a superior human being in this domain.
The best part about that? You can possess a broad spate of mediocrity in many many arenas that makes you look like Heinlein’s definition of the “Competent Man” shown at the start of this post. So how long would that take per skill set?
According to Josh Kaufman, that’s about 20 hours of deliberate practice:

So that’s about getting to the top of the initial steep curve of a skill. That’s where most people want to be; if they say they want to learn how to juggle, they don’t usually mean chainsaws on a unicycle while on fire. They mean 3 tennis balls for more that a few tosses. That’s the broad spectrum competency we’re talking about here. It’s really about the essentials.

Essential vs. Complete

Here’s where things get interesting: being a generalist is really about the essentials versus the complete picture. It reminds me of an audiobook that Ken Wilber made some years ago, where he talked about Buddhism in a similar fashion:

Needleman once said that Zen was essential Buddhism, and that Tibetan Buddhism was complete Buddhism. That’s sort of what it is, Zen it goes right to the heart: Satori! This is it, satori! IF you don’t have satori, you don’t have Buddhism. But Tibetan is like the whole shebang. I mean it’s got every single aspect, vehicle, gross, subtle, causal, all sorts of practices.

And I think that’s where the wheels come off for people: they think that a generalist is broadly specialized in a lot of areas, but it’s really just knowing the essentials in a lot of areas. Aiming to be a complete human being, functionally, is not about collecting a lot of specialization, but gaining the essentials in many areas and being able to apply them efficiently.

The Age Dilemma

Finally, there seems to be some sort of base level that we regress toward over time but can maintain. Our athletic peak, depending on event, seems to be late 20’s to early 40’s (with power events earlier and distance events later). From there we seem to just drip a small loss of ability until we reach some sort of equilibrium, maintaining motor skill, assuming activity,  until we die… a sort of biomechanical, athletic headroom that squares off when we do.

Chris McDougall talks about this with regard to distance running, and it’s clearly there with regards to weight training. But it’s even there with calisthenic/bodyweight activities that seem structurally benign. Even old master hand balancers lose their ability to do incredible one handed feats…but they can still hit a really decent handstand without trouble.

So my question is as always: is what you build above baseline beneficial, or is all the work just beating on the joints and making it harder to maintain ability with age? It certainly seems that those most accomplished in their youth are significantly less able as they get much older. They could have just changed interests, or those who still “have it” just aren’t visible like they used to be.

What does “General” look like?

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but I think that if you’re looking to be a “generalist” here’s some ideas:

  • Get good at GMB’s Level 1 curriculum (they don’t pay me or anything, I just think it’s a good packaged answer to the question) OR…
  • Find a Movnat practitioner (or some other phylogentic movement skill system practitioner) OR…
  • Do some minimal level of resistance training with a lot of the movement activity mentioned above (similar to my blog post here).
  • Include some sort of hinge power patterning. Doesn’t have to be really heavy, but should be accessible. The old Okinawan women can squat off the ground at 98 years because they’ve always squatted off the ground.
  • You’re not “born to run”…but you should be able to, and should check in on that from time to time. James’ talk elaborates on that, which you can view here.
  • Lots and lots of play.

That’s my 2 cents; what do you think?

How’s My Training (etc.) Been?

Just received this comment from Scott M:

Hey Skyler,

How’s it going? Wondering what your training frequency is like these days – still once every 5? Are you still doing mostly SS HIT with some old school weights thrown in? Still doing chaos training? How about diet – still paleo with carb cycling on workout days? or have you added safe starches? Also, how’s the HRV going?

Good to hear from you.


Thanks for the question Scott!

The short answer is: I’m not doing any of that, save for the dietary front.

The longer answer is that I’ve been mostly doing hand balancing and calisthenic work with rings and parallettes. Other than deadlifting and some weighted shoulder dislocates, I don’t do too much object manipulation (Save for when I play around with Movnat combos).

There are many reasons for this, but the main factor is that I’ve been lifting a long, long time and wanted to learn how to manipulate my body in space. Further, with the birth of my son, I can’t always grab a workout at the gym, in spite of working at one. When my days are crammed, I leave after my last client to go pick up my son, so having the parallettes at home to train while he plays is always an easy option. Plus, he thinks it is so cool.

Further, the HIT jihadists are just so damn annoying. For every level-headed practitioner of HIT there is a wake of believers flowing behind him. It’s a bit like Ghandi’s saying:

I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians; they are so unlike your Christ.

And since Efficient Exercise isn’t a “HIT gym” per se, I’m not required to toe the party line because there isn’t one. I can train however and train clients in a way that keeps them training and gets them results, safely. This happens to be very HIT influenced because they’re busy and want the largest bang for their buck.

An Ecological Worldview

So it’s both about wanting to try different things and because of all of the reading I’ve been doing. Given my education, I can argue for or against any approach, but I do like a more “wholistic” (intentional misspelling to emphasize “whole”) point of view. To take into account as many variables that may change the health and well being of a human animal. For a brief primer on human ecology, read this. Sounds familiar, no? All the way back in 1973, no less!

With that in mind, a real game-changer for me has been the book “Human Frontiers, Environments, and Diseases” by Tony McMichael. I originally read about this on, which belongs to Keith Thomas. Long (long!) story short, it’s an academic volume with accessible writing that manages to tie all of the strings together. While a “paleo” perspective is almost only about diet, an Ecological perspective accounts of every aspect of human interaction that can have a positive or negative effect on health or well being. I’m still digesting the book but so far it’s been a great read. You might not find it as such, but if you want a nice review see Keith’s here.

That said, it wasn’t this book that made me change my training: it was fatherhood. The deep components of my psyche that I didn’t know was altered or influenced by relatively benign aspects of my childhood bubbled up to the surface. For example, my father contracted gangrene in his leg during his late 20’s after an operation to remove a bone spur. Fortunately he still has his leg after some confident surgeons and cutting-edge (at the time) use of hyperbaric chambers to heal after the fact. That said, my father was not able to be particularly athletic as a result: hiking has been the long and short of his physical activity save for HIT. I didn’t realize how much this was kind of engrained until my son was born. I see him and I want to not just keep up with him, but I want him to be super-impressed by his father’s physical capability. Not making a weight go up and down, but what I can actually do with myself. It’s not a competition; I want to be the role model for his vitality, ya dig?

And that reminds me: how many old weightlifter do you know that aren’t fat or beat up? Not many. Correlation is not causation, and I can’t help but think that constant striving for an external variable to define “success” or “progress” might let the ego take the wheel and drive to injury sooner than later. I also can’t help but account for the longest lived cultures on Earth and how they don’t do any specific training, not generally. They have lifestyles that dictate lots of physical activity and they maintain their vitality through a huge lifespan. In fact a recent analysis showed that the variable that most correlated with the longevity of the Sardinia blue zone men was *drumroll*… physical activity.  Not training, but “pastoralism,” grade of the terrain, and, distance traveled to a place of work. Not magic legumes, not red wine, not cheese, not a super-secret workout…physical activity!


This of course segues into diet, which as noted above really hasn’t changed. I typically fast 16 to 18 hours each day and then eat in the remaining window of the 24 hours. My work schedule dictates such, though I’ve been doing some form of IF for 7 years now so it’s really a lifestyle for me. My bodyweight has been within 2 pounds of 175lbs for 4 years now, which pegs me right at 12% body fat according to DEXA scan. I’ll see you at 11o.

Further, no counting of any macronutrient. Some days I’m basically a damned protein-chowing carnivore; others a raw vegan, others still an Inuit on a bobsled. Some days huge carbohydrate loads, others almost zilch. The foods remain the same though:

Eat-Real-Food-What-is-Paleo-620x481Do I think, you know, legumes or the like will kill you? No, especially when cooked. Do I enjoy good bread from time-to-time? I do, with a crapton of butter on top. Or olive oil.

But for my internal calculus, they’re not regulars in my diet for this reason: are they giving me something I can’t get elsewhere? No. Do they pose potentially problematic components that I’d rather not have regularly? Yes. Ergo I avoid them. I’m not freaking out if the salad I bought came with croutons, or if the chili that’s available has some beans in it. I live in the real world and can control very little. But in my house, where I have control, it’s the above.

That calculus might not work for you; maybe you grew up loving legumes and just can’t think to get rid of them, nor do they cause you problems. Great! I came to this perspective through a Blue Zones perspective, so I’m certain legumes are generally fine. But I never liked legumes, so I don’t buy either side of the coin: yes they’re consumed regularly in these longevity cultures, but I don’t think they’re magic, AND they have potentially problematic compounds, but I don’t think they’ll kill you and they have good nutrition value if that’s your thing.

It’s a bit of the “Jeet Kune Do” or “Wei Wu Wei” of diet. It just is.

Oh, about HRV. I still use it, but not to track my workouts. I use it during my breath meditation to play with different breathing patterns and see how that changes my HRV. Great tech and once you know where you best benefit from a certain type of mindfulness practice (as measured by HRV), you can stop measuring. However, you might also see changes in your HRV in spite of the “known” breathing pattern because of life stressors. Still a good indicator, no longer use it for my training.

Summed up

That’s a longish winding answer; I like bullet points so let’s do that:

  • Currently I’m “training” 3 days per week with parallettes or rings (think GMB Fitness-type stuff) plus trap bar deadlifts
  • And I’m “moving” 6 days per week (Movnat, hiking, yoga, the odd trail run[!])
  • I do this because the activities are fun at fit the whole “ecological” paradigm without being silly. Plus they’re portable given my schedule. And my son thinks they’re great.
  • I fast daily.
  • I eat real food, avoiding problematic compounds without being dogmatic. I feel best on this form of eating.I don’t make fake fill-ins; if I want bread or ice cream, I eat bread or ice cream, not fucking “paleo bread” or “low carb ice cream.” Fuck that noise.
  • Do the best you can given your circumstances; it’s more than enough. What matters is that it’s consistent. Consistent imperfection trumps inconsistent perfection. What, you thought the longest, healthiest, and leanest cultures on Earth count their macros? Aim for the “perfect” exercise stimuli? Fuck. No. They. Did. Not.
  • Ironically, doing the above resembles magic when done for a long enough period of time.

In a strange turn of events, I’m going to leave the comments open on this one. Make me proud, Internets.

Grand Unified Training Spectrum 2.0

Since posting a couple weeks ago, I’ve received some good feedback and had a few “duh” moments myself regarding how this should look. As much, I’ve already updated and improved the design, which now looks like this:

GUT 3.0So one of the things I’ve done is expanded the “general” section because there is more leeway in avoiding creating dysfunction or injury when your movements are biomechanically congruent. Second I expanded the purple dysfunction areas to be larger when specializing or rehabilitating, as the more specialized you become the greater your risk of injury. It seems funny to “specialize” in general movements or movement patterns, but you can. This is seen a lot in the HIT crowd where the range of motion that is best loaded (from a force output perspective) is the “only” range of motion that these people venture. Stretching and mobility are dirty words; however if you can’t get into that range of motion voluntarily, and you have to venture there for some reason in real life, you’ll end up injured. Again, this is what I referred to in the first post as improving your boundary conditions and if you’re a HIT practitioner it would be wise to spend a little time here each week.

Next, this doesn’t account for modalities within each spectrum, which was a comment I received: “This doesn’t account for X’s work.” This was not a comprehensive spectrum of technique modalities because A) the distinctions can be arbitrary and B) modalities that may be the cornerstone of a bodybuilder might only see minor, but valuable, use by those in rehab or movement specialization (if they’re paying attention to what I wrote in the first paragraph). Modalities are a bit more fluid because their use is specific to the individual you’re training; remember, this is a global view of how training endeavors fit together, not the techniques you’d use in those endeavors.

Further if you’re healthy, the directionality would be from left to right or center toward the edges. Only if injured (or are on the verge of injury because you’ve ignored boundary conditions), should you regress back to the left as you primary focus. What happens as you move from left to right is that you transcend and include the previous level. Think about it: if you’re healthy, you’re likely using physical therapy exercises as “prehab” for your joints and muscles. Or if you’re venturing into a specific sport or movement activity, you’re likely using basic strength drills to “activate” muscles for your complex movement patterns, especially when they’re new to you. This does not mean that everyone needs to ever reach the movement or sport performance stage as some sort of “zenith” to your ability. Rather, it’s important to understand that though I’ve delineated these overarching themes, the reality is that the lower levels are part of the upper levels, though serving a different purpose in the scope of training goals.

Finally, I’ve added some examples to the spaces so that people understand what might “fit” each section. Clearly not an exhaustive list, merely a jumping off point for categorization and recognition.

GUT Examples

Lessons From Grad School

Last week I officially graduated. I’m not finished with my final project for publication, but that happens independent of getting my degree…it’s icing on the cake.

Having a week of doing nothing school related allowed space to reflect on some of the take-away lessons from school. In no particular order:

  • You get out what you put in. Totally cliche but totally true, you’re going to get a lot of new information and you can just remember it or attempt to integrate it into your current understanding. Allowing it to actually change what you think you know allows you to be a better practitioner in whatever you’re going to school for when you’re finished.
  • To that end, there are some people who let the information wash over them like water off a duck’s back. They want the credentials, not the intangibles that come with hard work.
  • Academic writing is a giant pain in the ass, but I understand and appreciate why. I’d rather just apply what I know. As a result, any other degrees I get will likely be clinical or “applied”-type degrees.
  • Your core curriculum serves to deepen your silos of knowledge; the electives serve to add silos. Take advantage of this.
  • As a result, the class I found most interesting, and most applicable in tying everything together, was a class I was least looking forward to taking (as I’ll explain in a later post).
  • Academia is not glamorous. There are no more Indiana Jones-type professors and I’m not sure there ever will be again. It is a job, period.
  • There is not cathartic moment with graduation; you’re still you. Only now you get some letters after your name signifying a modicum of expertise. I think if you didn’t come from money or privilege, this is a very big deal on a personal level. I know it was for me.
  • Your standard internet fitness guru can dig up a mess of information about content without having any idea as to how to contextualize it. This is the difference between a kid with a new toy and a master with a box of tools.
  • It is very easy to develop a type of Stockholm syndrome while in the deepest bowels of a degree program. “I’ll just stay in school forever!” as some sort of distraction from the daily slog. Once finished, this disappears.
  • Most of what people refer to as “exercise” is really just gussied up recreation. Without a good way to measure what’s going on at the physiological level (what you’re attempting to “exercise” for health outcomes), you’re just guessing which part of the noise is actually the signal. Most are terrible at this.
  • On the other hand, the value of recreation cannot be denied. However, only recreation often leads to injuries in trying to take something that should be “fun” and push it to “exercise.” Just leave it fun.
  • Being able to read journal articles like a scientist has value that cannot be understated.

Those are off the top of my head, I’m sure there are tons more in there. But that should give you a taste of some of the “intangible” knowledge acquisitions you’ll gain if you’re about to venture down the graduate school path.

Put In The Work

One of the things I stress with clients is that the low hanging fruit should be picked first. It’s fairly standards in this field for clients and trainers to “go for broke” and set up really complicated programming to reach their goal. To keep running with the metaphor, that’s like climbing to the top of the tree to pick fruit. Sure there might be better fruit up there but wasn’t the goal to eat?

Recently I’ve been dabbling in doing handstands. Sure I found all sorts of complicated programming and poorly written tutorials. After getting them I didn’t use them. When I finally came back to the goal I decided that I’d just practice every day. Even if that meant just one attempt upside-down, that was enough.

After a couple weeks of this I can kick up into a 5 second handstand. I can’t do this every time but I can certainly do it every day. And every day that I do it I get a little better at it. So there was no magic routine, just a bit of consistent “imperfection” toward the goal. Often, by the time a person needs a routine tune-up, they’ve surpassed their peers and need far less coaching all because they were consistent with something appropriate and intelligent but perhaps imperfect.

Consistent imperfection beats inconsistent perfection in this game.

Here’s a shake idea

From the “holy crap this thing is loaded to the gills with nutrition” file:

-1/3 cup coconut milk

-3 raw eggs

-2 level tablespoons of cocoa powder

-1 tablespoon of almond butter

-1 tablespoon of resistant starch (I used tapioca flour)

-1 banana

-8 ice cubes

Load into a blender and HIT PUREE!

You could replace bananas with blueberries if you want the nutrition to go to infinity and beyond, but I have a lot of bananas on hand so they get called up.