Welcome to the fourth and final installment of my Hierarchy of Health series. The hierarchy as I’ve laid it out is as follows:
Your can access any of the previous installments by clicking on the links above.
I know many of you who have followed this series must have at one point thought, “Dave, what’s the deal? Why would you put the one element you’re most involved with last?”
It’s true, exercise is my bag. I’ve made my career out of promoting its practice and trying to get as many people as I can involved with it. I also believe that exercise is essential to good health.
But I know, that if the first three elements are not in line, then additional exercise is practically useless if not harmful. It’s my aim with this series to help you plot your own course to good health, to understand that all levels of this hierarchy are essential, and that each successive layer is dependent on the proper application of the previous ones.
What kind? Cardio? Strength Training? Yoga/Flexibility? Crossfit? Pure Barre? Orange Theory? Spin? Aerobics? Jazzercise? Cycling? Running? Team sports? Parkour? MovNat? Martial Arts? As you can see, the list of options is quite extensive and as you might expect by now, my answer is largely, “It depends.” Which, I’ll admit, is a really crappy answer.
So, to be nice, I’ll amend that answer to, “It depends. What are you trying to achieve?”
Let’s assume for the moment that you understand the need for exercise and are looking to add or increase its presence in your life. What’s your goal?
Whether you know it or not, you have goals. There’s a reason for everything you do. What’s of question is whether or not you’re aware of that reason.
Why is knowing important? It guides direction. A nebulous goal leads to nebulous training, a meandering course that may or may not reach its final destination.
So, what’s your goal? Understand, this is not an all or nothing proposition. You can change your mind (although there is much to be said for sticking to a plan and seeing it through to fruition.)
Having a clear goal makes the what comes next so much easier. If you know your goal then the process to reach that goal practically writes itself. All that’s left is follow through.
So, seriously, what is your goal?
Let’s be more specific. Fat loss. Weight loss is easy. Lose a limb and you easily drop 30 or 40 pounds. I don’t think that’s what most people have in mind. Fat loss is specific. Assuming that you’ve followed my previous advice and you’ve got your hierarchy in order what exercise will get you where you want to go?
Inefficient exercise. This is a concept I stole from Dan John. The idea is that, for fat loss, the actual exercise is not so important. What matters is that it burns a lot of calories. Inefficiency burns calories. You waste all of this effort fighting yourself as you learn a new skill. That translates to burned calories and fat loss.
When I was a kid, way back in the 1980s, my dad had a membership to CourtSouth. It was one of theose post divorce “I’m gonna get fit and improve my life” moves that most of us make in similar situations. In the 80s racketball was all the rage and racketball clubs were all over the place. I don’t know if anyone still plays racketball now, but I suspect they’re hard pressed to find a court.
Anyway, one day while hanging around waiting for my dad to finish a game I met this guy. A big guy, shaped like a bowling ball, and he offered to play me a match. I was 13, full of piss and vinegar, and eager to prove my worth. I was gonna beat the pants off of this guy. Only I didn’t. This guy was a shark. He understood the game and angles and how to place the ball. He beat the crap out of me.
I don’t know if he played racketball with the aim of losing weight, but I know now that if that was his goal he never achieved it that way. He was too good. He played the game with such efficiency that he exerted very little effort and thus would never burn the calories he needed in order to change his body composition.
That’s one of the reasons why we swing kettlebells here at Agoge. There’s a pretty good learning curve on the kb swing, that leaves room for lots of practice and a lot of inefficient movement. More effort equals more calories burned.
Properly taught, martial arts can be another avenue to fat loss. Coach Jimmy and I have had many conversations about the need for sweat in our martial arts classes. Many martial arts classes focus solely on technique. They teach fancy skills and moves that look good. They forget that from a martial perspective, fighting is all about conditioning. The better conditioned fighter can usually outlast a better skilled one with poor conditioning.
While fighting may never be your goal, the training of a fighter is ideal for fat loss. Lots of movement combined with a steep learning curve creates a lot of inefficient exercise and burns tons of calories. In our experience, combining Progressive Strength Training classes with Courage Martial Arts equals rapid fat loss and body composition (ratio of lean body mass to fat mass) change.
We live in these physical bodies that navigate a physical world. When we don’t move well life hurts. Basic tasks and chores like getting out of bed or bringing in the groceries are burdensome or downright painful.
In my late twenties and early thirties I suffered bouts of debilitating back pain. I’d be laid up for days unable to move for fear of back spasms and intense pain.
I’ll never forget my last episode. I had lain in bed from three days medicating myself for the pain. Samantha tended to me as best she could while still managing the house and our three small children. Finally, on day three she came in and said, “Dave, you’ve just got to get up. You can’t lay here like this.”
So, I did. It hurt like hell. I went back to work, unable to fully stand upright and hobbled around. I was a technician, working on machines in a giant warehouse type building. The floors were concrete and I had to move in and around these machines, often getting down on the floor and twisting and contorting to get to the part I was working on.
It sucked. But eventually my muscles began to loosen up and I could move again. Shortly thereafter I found the martial arts group I was to work with for two years and would eventually lead to me becoming a trainer and following a career in fitness. Martial arts lead to yoga and eventually to strength training. I worked my movement and as I moved better my physical issues fell away. I’ve never been bothered by back pain of that magnitude since.
I cannot, for the life of me, think of a single reason for why you would not want to get stronger.
Strength goes hand in hand with moving better and improved body composition, as the one helps facilitate the others. Strength training builds muscle mass and increased muscle mass has all kinds of benefits. Muscle tissue burns more calories just to exist. Muscle makes movement easier, and, as we all tend to lose muscle mass as we age, the more we maintain and the longer we maintain it the easier it is to maintain a healthy body composition, and the less dependent we are on others to do things for us.
Weight bearing exercise also improves our bones. Lack of bone density is another concern as we get older. We’ve all seen or heard of an elder who broke a hip or other bone from a relatively minor fall. This fragility of our basic structure is due entirely to poor bone density, a quality that is, for most of us, under our control.
Bone density is not just a concern for the elderly. As we continue to purse health initiatives that decrease our nation’s health and weaken us physically, I am dismayed to hear with alarming frequency of young people, especially children, experiencing bone breaks from what appear to be minor falls and accidents. Those of us over forty are perhaps more accustomed to bone breaks in children. We had rough and tumble childhoods and breaking an arm was almost a badge of honor. What concerns me now is that the stimuli for the breaks of today are much more minor, indicating, for me, an indictment of our national diet and standards of physical activity.
Moving less is making us weaker and it’s showing up up at earlier and earlier ages.
Improve A Skill
For some, any of the above qualities are steps to a bigger goal, the improvement of a particular skill. Whether it's sport related like a faster sprint, or a longer drive in golf; job related like dragging another human to safety; or just for fun - able to catch more Pokemon? - better strength, conditioning, and mobility can help you increase your skills.
Skill development makes programming quite easy. Do the exercises that promote the qualities necessary for the skill you're trying to develop and don't worry about everything else.
In fact, it's from sport and skill development that goal oriented training has been most fleshed out and has influenced the other areas of the fitness industry.
So, yeah. You need to exercise. But you already knew that. What's important now is to come up with a Why. You don't have to be limited to the reasons I've suggested. Your Why is yours and yours alone. But I do think you need to know what it is. The more clearly you understand it. The more direct your path and the more successful you'll be.
To our perfect imperfection,