Physical training philosophy

I have a crazy pipe dream that someday I would like to do work in the philosophy of physical fitness. It doesn’t even seem to be a discipline yet, although there is a philosophy of sport which is largely considered with the nature of sport and the ethics of competition. I am interested in doing work on the nature of developing physical prowess, but at this point I have not the faintest idea of what I would write about. Instead, today I thought I’d write about how I approach physical training itself. 

It seems to me that prior to beginning training, one ought to have some idea of what one aims to accomplish. Defining one’s goals is, of course, well-understood as an important first step, and good trainers will walk one through the vague goals (“I want to look better naked,” “I want to be strong,” “I want to live to be 100”) with which we usually start, and turn those into specific goals and training/nutrition programs.

I wonder how useful this sort of focused training is, however. Trained athletes, injured populations, and so forth may have specific training needs, but I’m inclined to think that the most valuable thing a coach can do for the average sedentary trainee is simply to help them build the ability to do lots of physical work without injury. Almost all of us will have times where we spend a day or a weekend working outside on a yard or moving into or out of an apartment, or where suddenly a bunch of our friends will all be going on a hike together and want us to join, or we will have grandkids who want to play with us, or we will have to chase after a dog that just bolted on a walk. Life is, I take it, much better if those things don’t lay us out or injure us or leave us unable to function for a week.

So what does this look like? Obviously, it involves developing general physical preparedness (GPP) in trainees, but I think that it’s most valuable to prepare trainees without highly specific goals with the idea in mind that they might want to reach for some serious physical ability at some point in the future. With that assumption, the idea is to prepare trainees with a sufficient base of GPP that whatever they decide to do, they’re unlikely to injure themselves without some serious stupidity or bad luck. Here is my rough idea of a training cycle:

Phase 1: initial physical prep (2-4 weeks)
– basic bodyweight work: push-ups, pull-ups, squats, lunges (2-x/week)
– low-level conditioning: brisk walks, sprints, or hikes/easy runs (1-2x/week)
– mobility checks: figure out how well they move to start anticipating and preventing potential problems downstream

Phase 2: barbell training (6-8 weeks)
– beginning barbell program: Starting Strength, StrongLifts, or even something like Greg Nuckols suggests (more here) (2-3x/week)
– more intense conditioning: sprints, running, rucking, as appropriate for the trainee (1-3x/week)
– bodyweight accessory work

Phase 3: conditioning (4-6 weeks)
– maintenance barbell work: 3×3 of each of the major lifts at the same weight for the whole cycle, or similar (1-3x/week)
– extensive conditioning: runs, sprints, CrossFit-style metcons (couplets and triplets, particularly), harder hikes (3-5x/week)

If the trainee continues to feel good and improve, repeating Phases 2 and 3 will probably serve for quite some time. If they start to feel beat down, throwing in Phase 1 or something like it will be a good idea. As the trainee works more, they will probably start to discover what they particularly enjoy (or don’t enjoy) and can work with the coach to refine the programming closer to their own goals and interests. This sort of program will help the trainee get used to doing quite a bit of work and will give them meaningful amounts of time (for a novice) in different modalities.

A further consideration takes us back to the issue of volume: eventually, you just have to do more (1, 2) to keep improving. Many popular programs — standard gym bro splits, CrossFit, couch-to-5ks, and so forth — expect a fair amount of volume from their trainees. The more we can help our trainees get used to doing a lot of work and able to tolerate the work, the better time they’ll have and the less likely they are to be injured.

It also strikes me that it is valuable to develop smart fitness-maintenance programs. As trainers and coaches (or just as gym bros who help our friends, in my case), we tend to want to help trainees find programming which will drive adaptation and improvement. For many (perhaps most) people, however, a respectable press or squat or mile is simply irrelevant. If they can move comfortably and feel good and not struggle in their daily lives, they will be perfectly happy with their body’s abilities. Many people are simply not competitive or driven, and that is (or ought to be) acceptable to us. Consequently, I think that we ought to work on developing fairly-easy maintenance programs which will result in little or no decrepitude and which will maintain the work capacity to jump back into real training. Such a program would need to be modifiable based on the individual athlete’s abilities and goals, but it might look something like this:

– 3×3 strict press (work weight is last weight at 3×5 or 5×5)
– 3×5 bodyweight pull-ups
– 1 leg blaster

– brisk 1-mile walk
– 10-20 unweighted get-ups for time

– 3×3 weighted lower body (squat or DL)
– 2 max effort sets of push-ups

– mildly challenging hike or run or housework/yardwork

On the program above (or similar), no one is going to start moving impressive weight or running marathons, but it seems that such a person would be: (1) getting in some work in all three metabolic pathways, (2) doing major multi-joint movements, (3) maintaining respectable ROM in most joints, (4) maintaining most of their strength gains, (5) maintaining some work capacity, and (6) doing some cardiovascular work. Such a program seems relatively doable (15-25 mins 3x/week, plus the Saturday event) to a trainee who is motivated to be healthy but not driven to major performance goals. To be clear: this is not a program I’m suggesting to get a sedentary trainee into shape. Instead, I’m assuming that this trainee has spent a few months training harder and is now satisfied with their level of athleticism.

A final thought, vaguely related to movement prep in Phase 1: perhaps, then, the philosophy of physical fitness as a discipline should help to develop research questions: what movement restrictions and patterns tend to result in which injuries (or plateaus)? If people with poor ankle dorsiflexion (like me) are prone to calf strains (like me), perhaps those people would do well to build a base of muscular stamina in their ankles using Tabata calf raises before starting a distance running program. A systematic way of assessing a trainee’s predisposition to various injuries is invaluable.

The final final thought: perhaps the philosophy of physical fitness can develop “tiers” of GPP. I like the thought of something like this: uninjured but sedentary (most new trainees), prepared for daily life (able to keep up with the grandkids or the dog but not much use at a car wreck), prepared for emergencies (zombies won’t get you as long as you only have to get away once), prepared for hard training (have the work capacity to start training seriously for military goals, or to start powerlifting, or to start working toward a marathon, or to work towards hiking the Appalachian Trail). I’ll develop this thought in future entries.