Sunday, October 23, 2011

On Mindful Training

The classic mindless training picture: In some gyms you pay £70 a month for this

How to spot a liar in 0.01 secs in the gym

I work in a gym where people can just turn up and pay for a session, all they have to do is sign an indemnity form to say they're experienced in using gyms and with gym equipment and away they go. Sometimes I ask them how long they've been training and what they normally do. They normally tell me they've been training for years and they don't need any help; if it's a guy the first clue that they may not know what they're talking about is 1) When they mention a day dedicated to biceps or forearms except they don't look like Dorian Yates 2) They ask where the Smith machine is. If it's a woman it's when they say they usually just use the x-trainer and ask where the Adductor machine is.

Dorian Yates: didn't have a dedicated forearm day, didn't spend his time arsing around in the gym

I'm not ready to write them off just yet. Normally in about 90% of cases I can guess what the guys first exercise will be. Will it be a mobility warm up? No. Will it be some foam roller? No. Will it be some warm up squats with an empty bar? No. Nine times out of ten, it will an alternating bicep curl, standing as close to dumbbell rack as possible so no one can get close to it, making sure that the actual bicep curl is not full range of movement. As we all know the alternating bicep curl is the gold standard in warm up exercises and nervous system activation.

From this point onwards it normally goes downhill,  a random selection of exercises follows, Smith machine quarter squats using the knees only, bench press with feet up of course, hang on, they've just spotted the pec fly, time for some partial reps with as much weight as possible, need some more biceps, quick to preacher curl and if they've brought a friend with them some partner assisted reps should help those guns really get under stimulated. And so it goes on, until you feel the need to palm strike them out of their training stupor. Maybe in everyday life they aren't a douche bag, but in the gym the mixture of arrogance combines with complete training ignorance makes them one.

It turns out in most cases, they don't actually know what they're doing. Yes, they've trained for years, but they've been training half arsed, never actually following any type of program or structure, no intensity, no progress, no point. Now, I'm all for cybernetic periodization and intuitive training, but these guys aren't doing that, they've never trained with any intensity or plan; you need to know the basic rules before you start to break them. In a nutshell, they are training mindlessly.

Of course this phenomenon is not limited to guys trying to get big in the gym. Women fall into the same trap. Recently, I heard a women who goes to classes say that she didn't come here to think, when the studio instructor added in some exercises she was unfamiliar with. And that's the crux, a good many people want to stay in their comfort zone, switch off, plug in the ipod, do the same class over and over again with the same exercises and the same weights, go and get a coffee afterwards, stay fat, still not be able to do a plank for 30 seconds, complain that their body shape never changes and exercise doesn't work. And the whole industry pandered to this group over the last 20 years, gave them machines that required no thought or co-ordination, gave them 'workouts' that achieved nothing, made it easy to keep their business. But maybe, just maybe things are changing... a bit.

Mindful training  - stop working out

In the DVD club swinging essentials and the accompanying manual Dr Ed Thomas talks about mindful movement. Gray Cook, Brett Jones & Dr Thomas ask

"Why do we go to the Gym? "To get in a workout" is the common answer, but breaking a sweat or working through the latest extreme program are poor reasons. What if going to the gym meant learning.?"
 Dr Thomas states that in the past people went to the gym to learn a skill, to realise the full potential of the human body.

These days we are re-discovering kettlebells, Olympic weightlifting, Indian clubs, body weight exercises and more. But people are enamoured by machines. I was working out in a commercial gym last week and one of the instructors was showing a lady some floor exercises for the back, her question was "Is there a machine that does this?". She didn't want to believe that a simple body weight exercise could be the most effective exercise, she wanted to believe that one of those expensive machines must be better and could somehow do the work for her.

Some of it is misinformation and fitness myth, and sometimes it's difficult to see where it all comes from. The research on strength training and interval training has been pretty much consistent in its findings over the last 20 to 30 years. However, the average member of the public is still fearful of weights and non steady state cardio. I was training a marathon runner a few weeks ago, I did the usual movement screen, mobility warm up and eventually had him doing some goblet squats with 8kg (yes, bear in mind this was only an 8kg kettlebell) and some presses as well. In the next session he told me he only wanted to use machine weights as he thought that the free weights would hurt his back, he perceived that the machines would be safer. Eventually I persuaded him otherwise, but in his mind an 8kg kettlebell was causing more impact than the 1500 foot strikes per mile in a marathon. Now I'm not talking about people with chronic back pain, with all the yellow flags and a genuine fear of making their pain worse until you show them what they can do, I'm talking about people who are essentially 'fit' and 'exercising' in some fashion already.

So what should it be

Joseph Campbell says in the TV series The Power of Myth

"A life evokes our character. Put yourself in a situation that evokes your higher nature rather than your lower."
 This applies to the way you exercise as well.Do something that makes you grow mentally and physically, something that challenges you, that results in the aquisition of a new skill. Campbell again

"All of life is a meditation, most of it unintentional."
 There are certain exercises that require focus and stillness, what Campbell refers to as one pointed meditation. This is a common way of meditating, where you focus on one object, for example, the light from one candle flame until everything else falls away. Exercise examples of this would be Olympic lifting, trail running (not road running, but trail running where you have to focus on the ground all the time to avoid falling over), and even more so running at night. If you've ever run at night with just a head torch for light on a trail then you know what the meaning of one pointed meditation is. You are focusing on that tunnel of light, unaware of everything else but also acutely aware at the same time, so you don't fall in a ditch or go the wrong way.

Olympic weightlifting: an exercise in one pointed meditation

Night running. Now make it pitch black, put yourself deep in the forest and turn your head torch on - that's one pointed meditation

 The quiet centre

Joseph Campbell talks about that quiet centre in athletics when everything just flows.

"When you find that burning flame within yourself, action becomes facilitated in athletics.. or performance of any kind. If you can hold to that still place within yourself while engaged in the field, your performance will be masterly. That's what the Samurai does. And the real athlete."

 However paradoxically mindful training like this takes practice. This is where learning the skill comes in, getting those neural connections to fire, getting those myelin pathways to thicken. But it can't be mindless practice. In the book Bounce Matthew Syed makes an analogy with driving. Nearly all of us who have been driving for years can do it automatically, you switch off and drive without thinking, you might have even done the 10,000 hours that should make you an expert. But it has been mindless practice, you've been on autopilot, you haven't been increasing your skill limit, you haven't been deliberately doing the same complicated manoeuvres over and over again until you get them right. You've got your 10,000 hours but you don't stand a chance in a formula one race, or even a standard track day event.

In the gym and classes you see it all the time, 10,000 hours in the treadmill and xtrainer but still can't run 10k, 10,000 hours of toning classes but still can't do a press up. You've been training mindlessly.

The same in sport, for example, with rock climbing, the beginner is too busy panicking about death and dealing with the pain in their hands, they can't switch off, there is no quiet centre.

Rock climbing: an exercise in moving meditation, a quiet centre and a self limiting exercise. And if hot women do it, I really should take it up.
But the experienced climber or athlete knows their craft, knows their weak points, is always trying to improve

 The eventual paradox in mindful training: the expert is looking for beginners mind. Absorb everything and then forget everything. Where there is no thought, everything is unconscious. Winning, losing and everything in between become unimportant.

"Anything you do has a still point. When you are in that still point, you can perform maximally." - Joseph Campbell
 So train with a intensity, train like you mean it, train mindfully. And most of all don't be that dufus who turns up in the gym and thinks he knows everything, and ends up learning nothing. The best of the best are always willing to learn.


Diane K Olsen(1991) Reflections on the Art of Living. A Joseph Campbell Companion.

Joseph Campbell The Power Of Myth DVD

Matthew Syed (2011) The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice

Gray Cook, Brett Jones, Ed Thomas Club Swinging Essentials DVD.


  1. great post. spread the wealth in knowledge

    1. Thanks for reading & the comment James

  2. Once again hits home,am looking for that 'moment' and running at night IS awesome