The Craft of Fitness
How to Love Learning.
Passio “to suffer, to be acted on”
What is a craft?
Merriam-Websters tells us:
\ ˈkraft \
2 a : an occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill
the carpenter’s craft
the craft of writing plays
crafts such as pottery, carpentry, and sewing
He learned the craft as an apprentice.”
While a craft and a trade can often be used synonymous, the latter usually refers to a means where by which you make a living from the former. So for the sake of this article I’m going to elaborate on the former. Essentially it’s something you spend a great amount of your time trying to UNDERSTAND and get really good at. Another word might be hobby. But I would associate hobby with something you approach with less ownership, and something you dabble in for a short time. A craft is an investment in understanding and perfecting something that you love.
Let’s look at a Japanese woodworker. They learn about the different types of woods and tools they work with as well as the different techniques of cutting, fitting and finishing. They’re work is as subtle as it is complex. Which requires such a level of mastery to take something so simple and unadorned and make it truly beautiful and timeless. Then there’s the process of learning how to maintain all of your tools and what makes a good tool, which in an of itself is trade. And that’s just the beginning. The deeper you go the more you realize you know so little it’s overwhelming. But in the process it humbles you and inspires you to want to learn more. Now… now learning is fun. It’s not something you just have to do so you can pass a test.
It’s incredible to see how much most people hate learning. And honestly, I don’t think it’s their fault. The school system we’ve adopted since the industrial revolution is the most uninspiring thing I’ve ever seen . It’s solely focused on teaching to pass a test. That’s it. Or the teacher will grade things in such a way that it looks like students are doing better than they are. In the end it kills any desire you might ever have to learn anything. Learning subconsciously becomes the “L” word, and turns you off to it for years, if not life. And it’s no easier on the teacher. Then you go off to college, and it’s all about just needing to know the material enough that you’re able to pass it, but never truly appreciate it or understanding it. This creates a very toxic relationship with any kind of self growth. Granted, now and then you might hear someone say they need to know something better, but rarely do you hear students say how fascinated they are with the subject that their taking out a mortgage to learn, or better yet just memorize, all so they can get a better paying job and pay of said mortgage. But at no point was there a discussion about loving the process. And that process is learning.
Regardless of what you get into, you’ll find the rabbit hole goes as deep as you’re willing to go. And this is where most stop at; a hobbyist and never make it to the level of craftsman. The former doesn’t require commitment, the latter does. But you’re committed to living with yourself for 24/7. So why approach it like a hobbyist?
It’s always perplexed me that dental insurance is separate from medical insurance. At what point and what round table meeting did anyone say “we should treat the mouth like it’s not really part of the rest of the body.” And when it comes to fitness it always perplexes me that people want to get better at it, but not really learn much about it. They just want to drop their body off and pick it up in an hour while they tune out and go get some other stuff done. But… it doesn’t work like that.
The mind is not separate from the body either, and to move unconsciously or without intention will only lead to dismal results, and eventually burn out as feel like there’s nothing really new to learn. Everything is the same old same old stuff. You might as well be doing machine circuits at Planet Fitness.
“If I could go back to that original little CrossFit gym in Santa Cruz and unlock the door, I’ll tell you right now what I would do next: I would take those chairs we were using for seminars and I’d hold SAT-prep classes. I’d teach math to people who are afraid of math, and I’d be doing everything I could to improve the cognitive processes of my friends.”
Founder & CEO of CrossFIt
In the book Soul of a Chef: The Journey Towards Perfection, there’s a scene where the author is interviewing one of the chefs from the CIA (Culinary Institute of America), and he’s asking him about passion, and if he thinks it can be taught. And in paraphrasing, he responds by saying he believes it can be. And the process looks something like this: ,
A teacher gets excited about what they love, and the student’s see it. They begin to understand your eccentricities and now see it as passion. It’s when you are able to help them connect the dots and understand the bigger picture of the craft you’ve chosen. This leads to curiosity, which lead to interests, which leads to a desire to learn more. The flame has been rekindled, which leads with time and nurturing leads to passion, which leads to ownership simultaneously. You can’t have one without the other.
What is passion? It’s the willingness to suffer for something. And often, in the case of a craft you’ll see it as the willingness to suffer in order to learn more about it. And in the case of fitness, if you do so, the work of art you’ll receive is the specific benefits you’re trying to achieve (i.e. stress control, weight loss, performance, strength gains, anxiety, etc…). But you have to learn how the tools of the trade affect you, if you want to get exactly what you’re looking for out of it.
My hope is this in this series of articles it will help rekindle you desire to learn, or light a fire that was never there. Learning is the key to ALL of your gains. A refusal to do so is simply you setting your own limitations.
The Craft of Fitness
How to UNDERSTAND Something.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
What does learning , or better yet, UNDERSTANDING look like? And what does it look like to get really good at something. In the past three articles we’ve touched on the importance of failure (read: trying), perfectionism vs virtuosity in the process of learning, and finally how deductive and inductive reasoning can be used to take you somewhere or hold you back. We spent more time in the last article on talking about deductive reasoning, and only eluded to what inductive reasoning might look like in training, so today we’ll expound more from there. The next series of articles will cover a practical application of what we have covered here and in past articles. Which essentially acted as groundwork for what was to come. At the end of this my hope is that you will realize that you and your own observation of what is working and not working, are your greatest tools in helping you get to where you want to go. Keep this in mind as you read all of this.
So let’s get back on track. I recently had a conversation with Jane O’Brien, the head of the UNE OT Department. And in our discussion she mentioned that a lot of the research that Occupational Therapy does is based on what coaches have found over the years. That being, in this case, the coaches did the groundwork, created results (Improved functionality and work capacity of their clients), which then leads to OT’s and PTs wanting to test the coach’s results, using the empirical method. Essentially, the process looks like this:
The coach (a craftsman) tries to learn how to improve the health and wellness of an individual, and does so by using anecdotal evidence.
This then leads to logical evidence, i.e mathematicians wanting to test to see if this makes sense.
THEN, the researchers (OTs in this case) come along and have enough to work with that they can put a hypothesis together. THEN they try to see if their theory (based upon the already achieved RESULTS offered through anecdotal evidence), can produce results in an extremely isolated example. And herein lies it’s biggest limitation, aside from cost to produce.
Before we go any further, first I need to lay some groundwork. I listened to a PODCast recently by Julian Pineau, someone I respect tremendously. Personally, I feel he’s the smartest human in the field of fitness, and everyone could learn from him. So part of this article will be summarizing his discussion then elaborating further from there. I would highly recommend listening to it if you want to learn more. The theme of the PODCast was explaining the difference between the three types of research/evidence used to provide a conclusion, and how you can apply it to your fitness journey.
|Evidence Type||Method of Acquisition||Reasoning Used||Stages of Truth/Understanding|
|Anecdotal Evidence||Tactile &
Practice & Application
|Logical Evidence||Theory (i.e. Philosophy and Math/Physics models)||Deductive||Accepted as Self-Evident|
|Empirical Evidence||Theory and Hypothesis. Trying to create a deeper understanding of subject, but usually is tested in a vacuum.||Deductive||Accepted as Self-Evident|
Why is this so important? In order to learn, it is best if you understand what options you have to acquire knowledge. And the above three encompass the three means where by which you can learn something. However, there has been a massive shift in the wrong direction over the years that has essentially shamed the most effective way to learn anything, thereby stunting growth and your gains. So it needs to be brought to light in order to encourage you to keep trying, and help you realize the impact you, yourself, more than anyone else, can have on your own journey toward the best version of yourself.
But let me give you an example first. Let’s say you commissioned a famous artist to teach you to paint. You absolutely love their work, and you can’t believe you are finally getting this opportunity. Everything about their work just speaks too you. They’re simply the best paintings you’ve ever seen. But in your initial meeting they tell you that when it comes to mixing your colors, in order to get the best hue, you need to use a certain method. And instead of shutting the fuck up, you respond by asking for a study to show that this is the best way to mix them. This person has committed their life to UNDERSTANDING their craft. Not memorizing facts, but UNDERSTANDING something on all levels, and you essentially said you don’t believe their advice cause their recommendations don’t have a study to back it up, yet you are undeniably moved by their work…. GTFO? I think so.
Let’s try another example. You attend a seminar by some coach you really admire, in some discipline you really want to learn about. And during this seminar he tells you that he has found an extremely successful way to increase power and speed by using bands when you squat, and can guarantee you it’s the most effective and efficient way you can achieve this. And instead of TRYING it first, and respecting the craft and years of observation, immersion, and effort that went into what took him 5 minutes to explain to you, you ask him if there’s been a study done to test his theory and see if it’s actually true… Insulting much?
Where am I going with this? There are three types of evidence, and there for three ways to learn anything. And Empirical is now held as the golden standard of learning. Yet it’s fraught with misunderstanding, misplaced energy, lack of application and scientific cowardice. Yes, you read that last part right. And we’ll come back to that. But first let’s look at all three of these.
Have you ever tried to learn a skill? Wood working, typing, driving stick, horseback riding, playing the piano, weightlifting, walking, etc… If so, you got good at it by using anecdotal evidence. It looks something like this:
“That didn’t work”
“That Felt Better”
Wait… That feels WAY better!
In its simplest terms, this is what anecdotal evidence is: It’s the process of observing , making corrections, and actively trying to learn something by doing it. This worked. That didn’t, or as Pineau said, it’s simply the process of acquiring a skill. Like anything else it can be abused though, as we explained in my last article on deductive and inductive reasoning. It also requires no funding. Just your time and emotional & physical commitment. It’s the pioneer’s method of learning.
Anecdotal evidence is also the method used by the world’s most powerful A.I. Almost everything you have ever learned to do was based on the use of anecdotal evidence. And sometimes it’s called “Novelty Search”, because you’re always searching for a slightly better way to do something. This is how baby’s learn, actually. Or as a friend of mine once said: “You know you’re getting good at something when you start running out of mistakes to make. And even then you’ll continue to make them, they’ll just be more refined.”
One of the best ways to test AI is making it play games and pitting it against humans, such as in chess. The former golden standard of AI was a super computer called StockFish. It worked based upon memorizing the work and patterns of world champion players. And it beat almost every champion over and over again. But it never LEARNED anything. It just MEMORIZED results. It was described by Magnus Carlson, the Mozart of Chess, as an idiot who would beat you every time through brute force. Cold, unfeeling, calculation. Not at all human.
Along comes AlphaZero, the next gen AI, by Google. It starts as a blank slate, and is only told the rules of the game, and when pitted against Stockfish it lost… until it didn’t, and it BECAME unbeatable. How? It LEARNED, and in the process it REMEMBERED. It never memorized anything. It would try a move, and if it didn’t work, it wouldn’t do it again. It never made the same mistake twice. Instead it would try something new every time until it worked. It became completely unbeatable. It failed over and over again until the only thing left to do was the right thing. In fact it because SO good that it even taught master chess players new opening sequence never seen before in the history of the game. This is anecdotal evidence applied. AlphaZero didn’t need to read a study (Empirical Evidence) on how to play chess. It needed to observe, then fix what didn’t work in the past.
For all the flack anecdotal evidence gets by the academic world (people who are paid to do research using empirical evidence), it actually follows a very scientific method, known as Bayesian Inference. In the BI model, which is used to calculate predictability (i.e if I toss a coin x# of times what are the chances it will land on heads x# times in a row? etc…), is used in every form of learning you can imagine. You take what you know about a subject, make a guess, then try it out, like in the example I mentioned above (i.e. Nope, not that, that worked!, etc..) It’s the basis of Empirical evidence. Empirical Evidence wouldn’t exist without Anecdotal Evidence. AE is the pioneer of learning.
To radically simplify it, let’s say you have a lateral line that’s black, and you have a second line, red in this case, that spirals around it. The black line represents zero error/perfection. The red spiral represents error and an increased or decrease in it. Basically, the line is a perfectly executed Overhead Squat. The spiral is the representation of how close you are to performing a perfect OHS, or making the perfect scrambled egg, or tweaking your final draft, etc… How do you decrease error? Try things, failing, find what works, and keep dialing it in. This is anecdotal evidence in action. Can it be abused? Yes, but every argument I see is people arguing against misapplied use deductive or inductive reasoning. Not the use of anecdotal evidence.
Cost? Time, effort, physical, mental and emotional investment, a willingness to put yourself out there, commitment… You get the picture. Ask any craftsman what it takes to be REALLY good. It’s all of the above and then some.
This will be short. Logical evidence is essentially using universal laws to model your theory. Let me give you an example. A weightlifting coach says that you need to sweep the bar into the hips to make the bar “lighter”, so you can move it easier. This is the most effective way to get the bar from ground to overhead in a snatch.
So a physicist will apply the laws of physics to this and test it by measuring the lever length, and he will be able to show that when a bar is farther away from the body it is exponentially heavier and when it is closer it is lighter, and that is why the coach is right. These are scientific laws used to model the results the coach has claimed he has been able to produce again and again.
So what is empirical evidence? It’s the process of coming up with a hypothesis (which is initiated by anecdotal evidence), then coming to a conclusion by an extremely rigorous and isolated process. The more isolated, the more variables removed, the better the research is considered. It’s a dick measuring contest for nerds. In the end, your research is almost consider better than the next guys, not so much by the conclusion you came to (which could be identical), but how much better your measurements were or isolated things were before you came to a conclusion. This is the opposite of holistic. It doesn’t really reflect reality in many ways, and almost ALWAYS lacks an application. I can see the appeal, but it’s very impractical for most. In the end, if you use the information, it ends up just being a piece of the puzzle, and we will factored it in as we learn… anecdotally.
Let me make myself very clear here. There is a lot of very good research out here. And we owe it to this rigorous process of check and balance for so many of our steps forward in understanding. This article is not meant to be a beat down on this method of learning. This is the third piece in the Trinity of Research. But I simply believe that empirical evidence should be treated as just another piece of the puzzle, but not the golden standard or final word on learning and understanding. Science is never settled. If anything, I would say the style in which empirical evidence is done would better be referred to as Specialized or Fragmented or Isolated Evidence. As it usually comes to a conclusion, often with out a context of application, and it’s up to the reader to find an application for said result. No one ever learned to be a better carpenter, by reading a study on which kind of material used for sandpaper breaks down quicker or slower than other material used. BUT if said study did exist, the results given could be used by the carpenter as a piece of the puzzle, and something to factor in now that they he could try out and see if it gets the results he wanted (i.e smoother finish etc..). The carpenter used a piece of empirical evidence and applied it anecdotally. When you go to culinary school, you learn all the principles and basic science of cooking, but after you finish school it’s up to you to get better, to practice your craft. What method of learning does that sound like to you?
And there is a lot of trash “research” out there too. So it can’t all be trusted either. Take the NSCA vs. CrossFIt study. It’s was simply fraudulent. And the NSCA is now going bankrupt. But it was a “Study”. I was listening to a POD cast a while ago where they were talking about a study where it was “determined” that there is no difference between pec activation when doing incline or decline press… Right… Talk to any professional bodybuilder or power lifter and they’re incline and flat bench will be completely different. So this begs the question, did anyone doing the “study really even know how to bench? Who do you suspect knows more about the skill of benching? The Exercise Physiologist or the guy who benches 800#+ raw (AKA the Craftsman)? But hey, it was a “study” and they came to an “official conclusion”. You know, that was checked by “people”.
Largely due to the system of how it is run, in order for research to be done it needs to be done on a large population for it to be valid. Measuring two people isn’t enough. Of course that costs a LOT of money. In the end, who can afford this? This makes it impractical to use in most cases. So does that mean learning should stop until we can get a study done? And often it’s companies who need a study done on their product or something that could aid in the promotion of one. So right there you have a skewed agenda. Next up, the range of what is studied is SO narrow, that you could interpret the data however how you see fit. It’s almost non-applicable to most people as well, due to how isolated is it.
That being said, CrossFit IS Evidence Based Fitness. The Empirical method is absolutely used to validate it. It’s tested on a large population to see if the results are safe and effective. And it does so in an opensource manner. This is the best way to perform Empirical research, as it is often free to do so, but rarely implemented. So again this is not a rant of Empirical research. If done correctly, it can be incredibly reviling. If done incorrectly it can be so fragmented it’s nearly useless and reflects abstract math more than it does reality. There is good anecdotal and empirical evidence, just as there is bad versions of both. If something was found to be true after empirical research was performed, than it was true before it was performed. Why wait till someone else does the work for you? Be the pioneer of your own understanding and health.
What does this all mean? How does this help you get fitter?
It’s really quite simple. Take ownership of your health and fitness and TRY things that are new. Try new methods, exercises, movements, suggestions, Etc… Expand your base of understanding by trying as many new things as you can until you find what really is working and do that. Then continue to make adjustments from there. Treat your health as the craft that it is. You’ll connect so many “dots” and grow so much faster if you do that. Be a student of the game, a craftsman of fitness, and truly take ownership of pursuing UNDERSTANDING this body you have. Get to know it, and you’ll get to know yourself better. You are a context, and your context may require different needs than the other. Find them.
To not do so is to adhere only to the narrow, empirical route of acquiring information, but never really understanding something. Much like a critic, you have an opinion but no results. Which will only result in a cowardly, cynical and tepid approach to learning. i.e . “I’ll only do it if I’m SURE it works.” “Show me the study, I’ll try it as soon as you show me it’s right.” This what the religion of science looks like. Everything about this says fear of trying, and unwillingness to go out on a limb. If you need to see a study before you’re willing to try anything, I assure you, you’ll be far behind the pack for any indefinite amount of time, and you’ll end up waiting for other people to figure things out for you. It’s the equivalent of saying, prove to me they’re the one, before I commit to dating them. Life doesn’t work like that, and so neither does learning and growing.
In terms of practical application, what might this look like in the gym? Some examples might be you’re programming says do it 6 days a week, but it’s beating you up? Try Mon-Tue on Wed Off, Thur-Fri on weekend off? How’s it feel? Getting better results now? Then go with it. You’ve been told to cut out some macro nutrient entirely? How’s it feel? What are the results? You’ve done a lot of cardio or metcons to lose weight, and it’s worked up to a point, but doing more of the same isn’t getting you what you want now? You’ve hit a plateau or your board now? Try something else, and see if it works. You’ve spent a lot of time doing CrossFit up to this point, but what can Strongman, Power-lifting, Weightlifting, Endurance athletes, gymnasts, bodybuilders, etc… teach you? The programming says do this today, but your body is saying do something else? Try what it wants. Your squat has been stuck at the same place for 3 years? Try some accessory work to help with areas you’ve neglected by only squatting. To paraphrase Louie Simmons: “If you want to get bad at dead lifting, only dead lift”. Meaning work on all the things required to help your deadlift go up. Ge strong all around. Again, try new things or take that path you’ve been considering going down.
“Just when your body has all the answers, you have to change the questions.”
Doing so will cause you to take ownership of the direction you want to take your health and fitness in, and will reveille a never ending wonderland of learning about yourself, and this body you walk around in all day, but might only know on the level of an acquaintance. Fitness is an exploration of the humans boy and mind. It’s as personal as it gets. It is SO MUCH MORE than just showing up, sweating and going home the same person walked in the door. Like the student who is just trying to study to pass the test, if you approach fitness that way, you’ll find very fast you’ll either quit, get board of it, or plateau. Why? Because in order to get good at this, you have to let the old you die with all of your old priorities, habits, views, etc… Until you change as a person, you’ll never get to know the person you really are, and what you are capable of. The old you is just holding you back, which may still be the present you, that hates change, and is trying to hold onto the mind set of “just tell me what to do, I don’t want to know the why’s”. This is a sure fire way to keep you change-free and in a state of spinning your wheels and hitting a plateau for the rest of your life in anything you take on.
Want more of yourself. Want the means where by which to achieve that. Want change. Want to learn.
So to come full circle and wrap up, the nature of learning through anecdotal evidence is exploratory. It gives you permission to learn, and grow where it seemed like there was a dead end. There simply isn’t a faster way to learn or get better at anything. But if you try to learn through empirical evidence ONLY, and will only try something if it’s been “proven”, “certain” or they have a “Study” to back it up, you will have cut yourself off at the knees, and in your place did nothing more that try to say that your way of thinking is better. And there’s nothing I hate more than someone who asks for a study, it’s provided, then they don’t read it. And then when there’s no study, but results, your way of thinking is “correct”, even though you didn’t have to do anything to defend it. It’s lazy and requires nothing of you; no physical or emotion commit, no change, nothing. It just validates you don’t have to try anything new or need to learn anything. You bring NOTHING to the table. Change is the secret to greatness and full potential.
Coming full circle, this is the nature of training through Inductive Reasoning. And there’s a name for this style of training and nutrition. It’s referred to as Auto-Regulation Training, not to be confused with cherry picking. Through observation and intuition you can find exactly what your body wants to be training that day, and how to get the most out of your session. But what does it look like? We’ll talk about this next month. In the meantime work on strengthening your arch like mentioned in the last article and observe what’s working and what isn’t. Try something you never have. All your PRs are hiding there.
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