Sunday, April 02, 2006

DF Tip #13: Enough Form -- Try Function

dlI'm going to suggest something heretical here: stop training for your looks. Start training for performance.

That was hard to say, but I feel better.

Let's face it, fitness is the last guilt-free refuge of the vain. We can pump away day and night and justify it by saying it's for health reasons and how terrific it makes us feel, but what really keeps us coming back to the gym is how fabulous we look in our new Diesel jeans, baby!

...and there's nothing wrong with that, really. Truth be told, I wouldn't have gotten into weight training without my own preening teenage machismo to spur me on. If you've put in the work and you look good, you should be proud of it. So everyone out there who's carved a six-pack by sheer dint of sweat and self-denial should go ahead and flaunt it with my blessing.

There will come a time, however, when training that way will no longer feel quite right. You'll feel empty and hollow inside (cue violins). You may have lost some weight, built some muscle, ingrained the exercise habit, but whether you've made it to your target weight or not, the question will soon arise: Now what?

Ask any psychologist about goal-setting they will surely tell you two things: that a useful goal -- i.e., one that has real life-changing potential -- must be achievable and measurable. You must be able to reach it, and you must know when you've reached it.

From this goal-setting perspective, training for an aesthetic outcome fails on both counts. Generally speaking, it's almost impossible to achieve, and it's almost as hard to measure.

glamLet me explain, first, by way of one, quick, "the-media-feeds-us-unrealistic-images" story. A friend of mine works for a women's magazine, and has taped on her refrigerator a proof from a photo shoot for the magazine's cover. The shot is of Liz Hurley or some other, equally pulchritudinous creature. She looked fantastic, of course, but that's not what strikes your eye when you see the proof.

Every square inch of the photo is covered with instructions to the digital retoucher: take down the forehead shine, smooth out the touch of cellulite, add definition to the shoulders and arms, flatten and define the belly, curve this, straighten that. Taken as a whole, the notes read like something Frank Lloyd Wright might have left on the blueprints of some snot-nosed apprentice: nice try, kid, now lemme show you how it should look.

My friend keeps this photo on her refrigerator to remind her that no one looks like the people in the magazines -- not even those who have "hit the Pick Six in the genetic lottery," as Dennis Miller says. There isn't a square inch of Liz Hurley -- LIZ HURLEY! -- that's good enough for Glamour.

And these are the genetically, surgically and digitally-enhanced people to whom we compare ourselves.

All this is to say that the goals we set for ourselves vis-à-vis how we are "supposed" to look are very often just a micro-tad unrealistic.

fcSecond point: goals based on looks are very tough to measure. Just how do we know when we've achieved our goal to look like Brad Pitt in Fight Club? When the paparazzi start trailing us at the beach? When Angelina Jolie text-messages us to pick up Maddox at aikido class? And once we look as much like Mr. Pitt as we possibly can, what do we do? Snap a photo? Gussy ourselves up and stare at the mirror for an entire week like Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs?

Look, as a trainer I'm fully aware that everyone trains to look better. And again, there's nothing wrong with that. But always remember that it's something of a crapshoot: you might wind up looking like Brad Pitt. But you might not have those genetics. The guarantee is this, and only this: exercise, and you're going to look like a better version of you.

So here, as always, a few verbose paragraphs too late, is my suggestion: while you're waiting for the better version of you to emerge from the granite like Michelangelo's David, choose yourself a goal based on what your body can do instead of how it looks.

triI didn't really have a single performance goal that meant anything to me until about two years ago. That was when I decided, on a total lark, to join a weekend triathlon camp. I figured I'd go for a few months, do a race or two and then go back to the hardcore lifting-for-looks I'd been doing virtually my whole life. Instead, last weekend I kicked off my second season by shattering a couple of personal records in running and biking in my fifth competitive triathlon. Now, my personal records would send many triathletes into fits of cramp-inducing laughter, but that's not the point: becoming a triathlete has totally revitalized my training.

Instead of exercising to build up my pecs, I exercise to swim faster. To run smoother. To beat last year's time in the L.A. Triathlon. Are these goals reachable? Absolutely. Are they measurable? Sure as the numbers on my stopwatch.

And by the way? When I stopped watching the pot, it boiled at last: without even meaning to, I lost about six pounds. My bodyfat percentage went down. I lost a little muscle bulk here and there, but I don't miss it -- I actually prefer the way I look now.

I prefer it, in a way, because now my body's built do something, not just to look like it does something. It's built for a function, and the form has followed.

Now I'm not out to evangelize about triathlon, but I am going to suggest that everyone, soon, today even, find some kind of club, some kind of event, some kind of healthy, social, fun activity that will force you to exert yourself in a new way, that will get you engaged and involved in using your body regularly. Preferably something with an aspect of competition to it, with events or meets where you can measure your ever-improving performance. And believe me, if you commit to your new activity, you WILL improve.

bbIf you're already involved in something like that, set a new goal. Go for your black belt. Win the intramural championship with your basketball team. Sign up for a century bike ride. is a great place to start -- hey, you're online now, no time like the present.

You'll either be putting what you've built in the gym to good use or you'll be jump-starting your fitness program with a new, challenging activity you've probably been promising yourself you'd get to for months. Either way, everybody wins.

Good luck, and have a great week--



Constance said...

Thank You for a nicely written post. Most people can't get much motivation out of goals to look like celebrities. Unfortunately, we can't all sign up at L.A. triathalons either. Still, goals are important and do not have to be events to be rewarding.

Anonymous said...

This was amazing! Without even really knowing it, I've subscribed to your method of training. I used to always train soley for looks. I tried losing weight all the time and had little success, until recently. I set a few milestones for myself this summer- I did my first half marathon and my first triathlon. Without even thinking about it, I managed to lose a noticable about of weight and I'm in the best shape of my life. This is by far the best way to succeed in your quest for fitness.