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
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.
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):
: 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?
Just received this comment from Scott M:
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:
So 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.
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.
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.
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)
-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.