Photo Credit: Tobyotter on Flickr

by Khaled Allen

When I was running cross country in high school, we always began each practice session by stretching to avoid injury, and after we were done, we’d stretch again. We did this presumably to prevent injury, but despite the fact that I was the most flexible person on the team, I was injured most of my senior year. Nevertheless, I continued to stretch because I felt knotted and stiff when I didn’t.

A few years later, a number of studies came out suggesting that stretching wasn’t helpful to distance runners at all. According to some researchers, distance runners actually don’t need to be flexible. Some cite studies that prove stretching doesn’t prevent injury, and may actually make it more likely. Some say stretch only if you need to get more flexible.

The points against stretching are pretty harsh. According to a study published on the Gatorade Sports Science Institute website, stretching before exercise may cause temporary strength deficits, doesn’t prevent injury, and doesn’t improve exercise performance. The study did find that passive stretching, done away from the exercise environment, may improve flexibility, but the study also claimed that increased flexibility was detrimental to runners.

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by Khaled Allen

Picture credit Julia Baykova on Flickr

My most impressive physical accomplishment involved me carrying an aluminum canoe over razor-sharp rocks submerged in  knee-deep water, during a thunderstorm, while thick underbrush dragged me to my knees. It was one of the best days of my life, largely because it ended with a warm campfire and a full belly, but I was lucky to have been well prepared for it. For the month leading up to that camping trip, I had been doing all my usual CrossFit workouts outdoors, running on grassy mounds, lifting logs and rocks instead of balanced bars, and doing pullups on tree limbs. I was used to awkward, slippery, and uncomfortable. Some of my camping partners were totally stuck. Their gym workouts hadn’t prepared them for this, though they could probably lift more than me.

If the only races you’ve ever run have been on paved roads, you’ll be in for a surprise when you first step off the beaten, graded, and well-maintained path. Road runners transitioning to trail running always find that it’s the little things that throw them off: the unsure footing, the twists and turns, the constant elevation changes. They can handle the running itself, but when you have to get past all sorts of other things to even get to the running, you may find yourself stranded.

In reality, our bodies were designed to work in unstable, unpredictable conditions. Primitive fitness is based on using all possible movement patterns, in random and unpredictable environments and is based on what our hunter-gatherer ancestors did every day. It pays to keep in mind that we only have to use our own strength and speed when we lack modern conveniences in the first place. The only times you’ll have to rely on your own physical abilities to get work done are also the times you won’t be indoors, near the comforts of civilization. You wouldn’t have to carry your injured friend if you were near a road with a car, for example.

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by Khaled Allen

Picture credit: oddsock on Flickr

Are you fit enough to save your own life? What about those of your loved ones? Are you fit enough to survive a natural disaster?

If you workout just to get ‘in shape’, that isn’t good enough. It has no concrete value; what does ‘in shape’ even mean? It is a very vague goal, and vague goals never get you anywhere.

Here is a better set of goals, from Mark’s Daily Apple: be fit enough to survive a threat to your own life, to rescue your family if you must, and to endure any trauma you might experience.

Fitness is and always has been a means to an end. We train our bodies so that they might help us accomplish something. The Spartans trained from childhood not because they wanted to have higher levels of energy and look good in a loincloth. They had a city to defend and the honor of a culture to uphold. They put their bodies at the service of their city-state, and that is what gave them purpose in their training.

The most successful athletes have goals. Looking damn sexy is a fine goal, and it has motivated a lot of people in the past. Needing to be in shape to survive is a much better goal, and will let you push yourself to much greater heights of physical and mental prowess.

The greatest athletes in our civilization are the Olympians. They aren’t in it for the fitness. They are in it for the gold, literally. They don’t just want to be ‘in shape’. They want to be the best they can be, to perform whatever task is required of them as effectively as possible, and to leave a mark on the world. For them, it isn’t good enough to just go through their fitness routine; they need to see results.

If you want to become a truly accomplished athlete, you need something to train for, some objective to dedicate your body towards pursuing.

Fitness demands testing. That is why the truly fit – real athletes – are naturally drawn to challenge. They want to be tested. That is really the only way to know if you are fit, and to what extent.

CrossFit stakes its entire approach to fitness on measurable results. Fitness is meaningless if it cannot be measured and tested. The CrossFit definition of fitness is fairly straightforward. It is based on how efficiently you can complete a given task. Weightlifters are fit to move heavy loads. Runners are fit to cover a lot of distance quickly. How do we know? We measure it.

Being fit is important, make no mistake. The term fitness originally refers to the likelihood a given organism will reproduce and pass on its genes. You want to be fit, trust me. The desire to be fit is hardwired into your genes.

A great way to measure your real, applicable fitness is to consider whether your level of fitness is sufficient to save your life in the event it were ever threatened. The blog, The Art of Manliness, suggests 5 physical benchmarks that every man should be capable of performing should he need to save his own life. They include swimming half a mile, running at top speed for 200m, jumping over an obstacle at waist height, 15-20 pull ups, and at least 25 dips.

When fitness is necessary for survival, you have a much more useful measurement of ‘in shape’. Are  you fit enough to save your own life? Or are you just in shape to look pretty?

Most people are content to delude themselves into thinking they are fit based on cheesy infomercials and clever gym advertising. Nobody wants to admit that they’re not fit, because on a biological level, it is the equivalent of admitting you can’t survive and are not worthy to reproduce. And so our culture has come up with plenty of ways to let people avoid admitting that. You go to the gym for an hour a day and you pedal the elliptical like your overpaid personal trainer told you to, therefore you are fit. Never mind the fact that you still can’t climb your apartment building stairs without stopping to catch your breath.

Our definition of fitness has been divorced from actually demonstrating physical prowess.

Want to know for sure if you’re fit enough to save your own life? Run a Spartan Race.

The race doesn’t care if you look good in a muscle shirt. It doesn’t care if you have the latest running shoes. It doesn’t care if you can bench 300 lbs. All it cares about is whether or not you can survive and finish. Can you get the job done? That is fitness. If anyone tells you otherwise, they are trying to sell you something you probably don’t need.

That is why I love CrossFit so much. The CrossFit WODs don’t care how you get the job done, so long as you do it powerfully and efficiently. If the goal is to get weight overhead, you’ve got several different ways to do it. If the objective is to get yourself over a bar, by all means kick your legs and wriggle your way over the bar. If it gets you there faster than some muscle-head showing off his lats with strict pull ups, guess who will win the WOD? If you’re climbing for your life, guess who will survive and who will be found ‘unfit’?

Honestly, you don’t have to do either CrossFit or Spartan Races to test your fitness. You simply need to step up to a challenge that will push you out of your comfort zone. You need to put yourself in a place that is not easy and see if you can take it, and how well you can take it.

And you’re even allowed to fail. But if that happens, I expect you to train yourself to succeed next time. We have the luxury of simulating life threatening emergencies to test ourselves, and we should take advantage of that luxury so we’re ready for the real thing.

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by Khaled Allen

The most common complaint I hear from people who are interested in improving their fitness is that they don’t want to lift heavy weights. Bikers maintain that they don’t need to, soccer players believe it will make them bulky, and runners think it will slow them down. Women almost universally are afraid of gaining weight.

Marilyn Monroe lifted heavy weights, for crying out loud!

The problem is that there are no images in the fitness world of immensely strong, lean individuals. Everyone seems to think that if they so much as touch a loaded barbell, they will balloon into an Austrian bodybuilder. When people think of weightlifting, they see super heavyweight powerlifters and bodybuilders. They don’t think about the 135 lb men who are lifting 300 lbs and are about as lean and cut as a jaguar.

Most people don’t realize that the super heavyweights follow special programs to gain weight; they don’t get that way just by lifting.

People associate strength with bulk, and bulk with slowness. They would rather be small and weak than slightly heavier and immensely stronger.

Here’s an interesting fact: muscle tissue is capable of generating approximately 30 times its own weight in tension. That means 1 pound of muscle can pull 30 pounds of weight. Any gains in muscle mass will bestow more than enough extra speed, power, and agility to compensate for the extra bulk (up to a certain point of course).

The Spartan Race requires you to be well-rounded, just like any real-life situation that might require you to use your body. In an emergency, you might have to carry your loved ones to safety, and the ability to bike for hours will do you no good if you can’t even support their weight for more than a few minutes. Get strong. You’ll be faster, more agile, have less pain, and look better naked.

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by Khaled Allen  

Marathon Runner, christianisthedj on Flickr

At the CrossFit gym where I work, we have athletes of all ages and abilities. Many of them are in their 30s and 40s. Some are in their 50s and 60s. We ask all of them to lift heavy weights and push themselves until they are gasping for air. As a result, they are strong and in great shape.  Many senior athletes are reluctant to do so at first.  But they soon realize that by asking their bodies to deal with controlled stress, they preserve and develop their strength much more effectively than playing it safe all the time.

I hear it all the time: “I’m too old to be exercising like that. You young folk should enjoy it while you can, because when you get to be my age, you won’t be able to move around so easily.” Usually the person I’m talking to is in their late thirties, maybe their forties.

I believe that not only should people be exercising throughout their lives, but that older people especially should be lifting heavier weights, running faster races, and actually competing in their sports. Just like most people need to increase the intensity of their fitness routines, older athletes should also be training as intensely as they can, instead of holding back out of fear because of their age.

Shotputter, Rick Rickman, in an article by Anthea Raymond, Huffington Post

There is a false belief that as you get older, your ability to engage in athletic pursuits diminishes. This belief is based on studies that claim to show definitively that as you age, your muscle mass and bone density decreases, your ability to recover drops, and your coordination and agility begin to falter. These are old studies, and have been replicated many, many times, so they must be justified.

These studies do not account for men and women running marathons in their 60s. They do not account for powerlifters in their 40s outperforming younger competitors. They don’t account for the masters swimmers who are leaving college kids in their wake. Are these individuals genetic outliers? Or are we missing something?

An article in the latest issue of AARP pointed out that these studies did not control for level of activity; they simply measured various indicators of fitness in the general population over a certain age. Most adults in their late thirties and forties pretty much give up serious exercise when they get busy with families and jobs. Since most Americans are sedentary after their twenties, this means that we’ve been making conclusions based on a population that has been inactive for 10+ years. Basically all you can conclude from them is that if you stop exercising for a long time, you will lose muscle mass, bone density, and coordination. If you don’t exercise, you will lose fitness.

No surprise.

Then a study will come along and look at older people who don’t exercise because they’re told they can’t, and it will conclude that older people are weaker and slower, and should therefore limit the intensity of their exercise.

You see how this is a circular problem?

The same AARP article cited more recent studies looking at active older adults which found muscles almost as energetic as in younger athletes. So if you do keep training, you stay fit. This should come as no surprise, but I still get into a lot of arguments with adults in their thirties and forties who say they simply aren’t as fit as they used to be. I ask if they’ve kept up their training, and they say “no, but that has nothing to do with it.” They just got old.

My belief is that these ex-athletes feel bad about letting their fitness decline. Instead of accepting responsibility, they blame their age. Instead of just getting back to the hard work of developing fitness, they make excuses.

Lance Armstrong said it well. At 37, he re-entered the Tour De France, with the stated goal of winning an eighth time. Many people questioned his decision, saying that he was just being selfish, or couldn’t move on in his life, and should accept that he’s getting older and shouldn’t be competing. His response: “Athletes at 30, 35 mentally get tired. They’ve done their sport for 20, 25 years and they’re like, I’ve had enough. But there’s no evidence to support that when you’re 38 you’re any slower than when you were 32.”

There is also a troubling belief among many that, rather than strengthening the body, exercise actually wears it out and that you can only be fit for so long before fitness turns into excessive stress.

Besides the fact that this view doesn’t make sense, it isn’t even supported by what few viable studies have been done, much less the anecdotal evidence of athletes in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and even their 90s who only start training seriously after they are considered past their athletic years.

It used to be said that muscle loss was inevitable, and all you could do was delay it by doing some basic resistance training. Nobody thought to actually try lifting heavy weights or doing intense exercise. Lo and behold, there are bodybuilders in their 60s and 70s, sprinters and swimmers, track and field athletes competing well into their nineties, all with impressive musculature.  For visual evidence, check out Rick Rickman’s photographs of older athletes.

If you follow current trends in fitness, you know that the move is back towards functional lifts, performed at a load that permits only 1 to 5 reps, and short, high-intensity sprints. These loads have always been known to produce results, and have been used by high school, professional, and college athletes for decades. Compare that to what most of us have been doing in gyms for the last thirty years – lifting puny weights for sets of 10-12 reps, thirty minute bouts on the elliptical – and it’s no wonder we’re losing muscle as we age.

According to Miriam Nelson, director of the John Hancock Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition, “We have underestimated as a culture, and maybe even in the field of exercise science, what older adults are capable of doing.”

What does all this mean? It means that aging, or at least the physical frailty that comes along with it, is a choice. You don’t stop exercising because you get old. You get old because you stop exercising.

Picture credits:

Marathon Runner, christianisthedj on Flickr,

Shotputter, Rick Rickman, in an article by Anthea Raymond, Huffington Post,

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