A yogi, a runner, a weightlifter and a Crossfitter all walk into a bar…
Ok, this isn’t a punchline, but I couldn’t help using that as an opening line. I’m a fan of all of them, and they each represent a very important aspect of fitness. But there’s so much competition in the industry, I thought it would be a good idea to look at all the needs of the human machine when it comes to fitness.
Let’s start with yoga. In today’s world of chronic stress and skeletal dysfunction from sitting culture, yoga is an essential supplement to our lives. Yoga helps increase parasympathetic tone (relaxation response) in our nervous system and helps our skeletal structure work towards functional alignment and posture.
My favorite aspect of yoga is the prioritization of breathwork. Keeping yourself calm and focused under stress is a priceless skill and yoga is king when it comes to that.
Another very important feature of yoga is it teaches you how to support your own body weight with good structural alignment. This is extremely important if you are interested in eventually adding load or intensity to your structure like in weightlifting, Crossfit or running. Jumping into an increased load/intensity workout with alignment issues invariably leads to injury.
Where yoga falls short is the lack of anaerobic effort (elevated heart rate/cardio), and heavy lifting. Both of which are very important to a high functioning human machine.
Let’s look at running now. You could also put cycling, and hiking into the category of endurance sports. Endurance is a crucial life skill. These activities develop and increase stamina. The fortitude and focus muscles (yes, you train them just like muscles) are continuously being pushed just like the cardiovascular system.
The oxidative engine of the body learns to run smoothly for long periods of time and grows in efficiency. Losing weight is one of the numerous health benefits, but endurance sports also help to curb stress and combat heart disease. Best of all, a variety of feel-good chemicals affecting the brain are released when engaging in endurance sports, giving people an almost euphoric feeling once their body adapts to the distance… Yes, it gets better if you stick with it!
The downside to endurance sports is that they require a high number of repetitions of a specific motion. Like any machine, high repetition ultimately leads to a deterioration, and over-specialization. Subtle misalignments and compensations become compounded step after step and make endurance athletes more easily prone to injuries. Some can be quite long-lasting.
Good runners realize the importance of cross training in other modalities to reduce compensations with things like yoga, and the need to strengthen specific supporting muscles with weight lifting. Not to mention the body’s need for anaerobic training and the positive adaptations it produces to the human engine.
When it comes to weightlifting, nothing is better at strengthening the human machine’s general ranges of motion. Every capable person on the planet should do squats, deadlifts, and some version of lifting heavy things over your head.
Muscle mass and bone density are your body’s true retirement package. As we reach the later years of life, they are critical to living independently. Nothing is better for growing muscle and strengthening bone than weightlifting. Everything deteriorates eventually, but the process goes slower if you have adequate reserve.
My favorite aspect of weightlifting is the strengthening of your “dig deep” muscle. Training your body to recruit more physiological resources to achieve a lift has amazing health benefits, not to mention the mental confidence gained after having done something you’ve never done before. There’s a substantial reason people get hooked on the sport. Weightlifting is easily measurable progress in the blurred lines of our day-to-day lives.
Strength is a very important practice to employ as life only gets harder. There is nothing worse than feeling weak and helpless in the world. However, there are some things that can be overlooked in the pursuit of physical power and anatomical sculpting.
Mobility can be sacrificed as the body tries to push through its genetic ceiling. The excessive loading of the joints can cause not only injury but permanent dysfunction. Sometimes excessive training can keep the muscles from reaching their full resting length as well. Also, the jury is still out on the long term health effects of some of the supplementation practices that are needed to make high level gains.
Finally, we come to the still growing trend in the fitness community with Crossfit. Crossfit seems to have a lot of bases covered. Most importantly, the unique variety of the exercises in their workouts have numerous physical and mental benefits. Our human machine craves complexity as it makes us both stronger and smarter.
Crossfit consists of aerobic, anaerobic, and strength training. The dynamics of the exercises often cover all the necessary ranges of motion the human body needs to strengthen and maintenance.
Now that Crossfit is well into its second decade veteran coaches are now becoming wise to the long game. They have created viable systems to gradually strengthen people more appropriately into their challenging workouts and reduce injuries.
While some coaches are very diligent about compensation stretching and mobility warm-ups, for many it is still often undervalued, and chronic injuries from overtraining can be a legitimate problem. Young athletes bounce back quicker, but maturing practitioners can struggle. However, for those who take their training seriously they realize that integrating recovery is an absolute necessity.
The competitive element can also be a double-edged sword for some. On one hand, competition can be an amazing motivator and make people accomplish things they never thought they could. This has amazing benefits in creating confidence and camaraderie. Because of competition the sense of community in Crossfit is almost unparalleled. It’s an amazing team environment.
For those who have moderate compensations in their bodies or are less mechanically inclined (not natural athletes), loading the body and pushing it to the upper limits usually turns out bad. Competition has an external focus by its nature and mindfulness in movement takes a lower priority in order to get the job done. Another issue with high intensity work is that it lacks the parasympathetic shift (or relaxing mode) that the nervous system is usually in dire need of.
The human body is the most complicated machine in the known universe. The nervous, endocrine, immune, and neurological systems are all intertwined with exercising. It’s important to recognize what each has to offer. I believe a hybrid approach is crucially important for optimizing the complete human machine.
Exercise is supposed to make us better, but if done mindlessly it can actually make us weaker or even suffer from chronic stress. For some this may actually result in weight gain from adding inappropriate exercise to an already excessively stressful lifestyle.
Change is absolutely necessary for growth
My job as a coach is to try and go through multiple modalities with my clients. Often this goes in phases as I prep my clients properly to increase complexity, intensity and load. Each client is different and that’s a good thing as it keeps me on my toes.
I feel most successful when I can identify the needs of my client and guide them into a realm of their training they’ve never been into before.