Atul Gawande, the famous physician author, writes in his book Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance about the consistent miniscule actions that make elite doctors successful. He talks about the mindset of absolute commitment to excellence. Very few physicians uphold the highest standards in their work, and the few who do live by that level of commitment.
This came to mind as I thought about doing swings and getups every day. It can get a bit mind numbing after months of doing the same exercise, over and over. The principles of technique, form, and strength before volume start to slip here and there. I start to get accustomed to doing all the reps, all the sets. Every so othen the most important aspect of strength training escapes me: to do each swing with maximal force and each getup with maximal attention to form, and to stop when that can no longer be fulfilled.
It’s a matter of integrity, too, I know. You have to be honest with yourself and admit when you don’t have the strength to finish a set. But I think before any of that, it’s this absolute commitment to excellence. Just like with diets, I think that strength programs are easy to start, hard to keep going. To keep going the right way, that is.
Pavel Tsatsouline insists in Kettlebell Simple & Sinister that each swing must be done with full force. At first this seems like a no brainer. Sure, I’ll do my best every time, why not? Then as the weeks and months pass by, I find myself trying to finish sets with some not-so-hot swings toward the end. What gives?
Pavel talks about this natural preference within us to sacrifice strength for volume. When we get tired, it’s our instinct to try to get it all done, even if it means suboptimal output to reach that end. I’d rather hit the ten reps with a few weaker swings at the end, then stop at six when I feel my strength going down. It’s a strong urge to accomplish or finish a task, that’s socialized or built into me.
The thing to train for is maximal strength. It doesn’t matter exactly how many repetitions and sets get done. Yes, there are basic numbers to follow, and this helps us understand the general volume that is needed to increase strength. But the real cores of training strength are learning to do the movements and then doing the movements with maximal force.
Most school systems teach us to finish all the problems, write a prescribed number of pages, read a set number of books, achieve a certain GPA. This is ingrained in most of us from around age five to around age 21. How do you get away from that in a world that actually rewards the quality of the output?
Maybe I’m getting too deep here, talking about the education system and sociology. But that’s my mode of thinking, that’s where I come from in terms of schooling. So to me it’s about thinking but also doing outside the box.
Physical training is one of the most basic places to start with conditioning yourself in any aspect of life. It’s physical, so it’s right there. To do it, you are involved not just with your body but with your mind. You structure your learning, you commit to repetitions in order to improve, and it’s all inclusive. I even think the soul gets something out of it.
So in summary, I’m trying to say that we can think about physical training as the practice of giving the best in order to make that best even better. Rather than sticking to our grade school habit of making the teacher happy and hitting all the numbers, we can play to nature’s true system of improvement through excellence.
We can take care to only give maximal effort, and to withhold from doing anything that is not so. This is hard. Very hard.
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