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Reflections on “Not Following the Program”

by Rebekah Cygan, PTA, SSC | November 16, 2016

training with stage 4 cancer

Like many people on their journey to becoming a generally fitter and better person, CrossFit sounded like the best option, and that was the origin of our gym. But after getting only so far on that program – and finding I lacked the strength to perform some of their “stupid human tricks,” I found myself chronically sore and wondering how to fix it. When my business partner said, “I've been reading this book by a guy named Mark Rippetoe,” I listened.

I work in the adjunct medical field of physical therapy, and I see the effects of atrophy every day. It is my job to get people stronger. But I could also see that the treatments we were providing were woefully inadequate. When I read “Strength is the most important human adaptation,” I knew it was true, and I happily learned how to use a barbell.

We were hooked. We got stronger. Everyone commented on how much we had changed. However, we quickly found it was not as easy to convince our other gym members that they needed to get strong. They wanted to do chin ups and get better at WODs. They wanted their backs and shoulders to hurt less. But when we pitched the idea of taking time off to do a linear strength progression, they were very hesitant and not at all fond of the idea.

I come across the same frustrations in my occupation as a Physical Therapist Assistant. Physical Therapists talk a lot about decreasing pain, increasing range of motion and muscle balance – and oh yes, they throw stronger in there too, because that sounds healthy! Stronger seems like a good idea to people; it just doesn’t sound like the most important thing to most people. Their ears like the sound of “functional fitness” better. And I find myself thinking, “If I could get you under a barbell, I could change your life.”

Here are some of my reflections:

Why are people unwilling to begin the program?

Perhaps it's too simple. When you begin to explain the program, there is always an element of surprise.

“That’s it? Only 5 exercises?”

“Yes.”

“But which exercise works my core?”

“All of them.”

Stunned look.

I find this to be an even harder sell to my healthcare professional friends, who have books and books of exercises they can prescribe for various orthopedic ailments. I get it. They spent lots of money to become an expert in prescribing lots and lots of exercises. But I'm afraid the field of rehabilitation has become as unnecessarily complicated as the IRS tax code. And I guess you don’t seem as smart and professional if your prescription for helping someone heal is not as long and wordy.

Most people cannot believe productive strength training is that simple. They feel better about their shoulder, back, chest, arm, and leg days in the gym when they can check off each muscle group. Or they think single-leg bosu ball squats and other exercises that look something like an imaginary sport will give them a competitive edge. So they shell out their fitness instruction dollars to the “functional fitness” guy down the street. Compound barbell lifts are beautifully simple and effective, though maybe not so flashy. People like flashy.

PTs have no understanding of the Stress/Adaptation/Recovery Cycle.

I was talking with a “functional fitness” guy about deadlifts. He does not do deadlifts with his athletes because of “the high rate of injury.” I asked him if he thought high school students had a “high rate of injury” with deadlifts because they were using improper form with weights that were too heavy for the athlete. He said that he would never use the exercise because it loads the spine.

I then asked him if he thought his athletes should have strong backs. “Of course,” he said. I asked him how any tissue in the human body got stronger. He paused and said, “Well, I guess you have to load it.”

Most physical therapy for older populations seems to assume that their bodies have died and can no longer adapt to stress. Therapists know their patients have to get stronger – most therapists just do an inefficient job of making them stronger because they operate in the absence of an understanding of the basic premise of strength training. In therapy gyms across the country, hundreds of thousands of 3-pound leg extension reps happen every day. This does not replicate the systemic action of a person lifting himself out of a chair or walking across the room, or the process of improving this systemic ability.

If you ask most therapists, they cannot explain this concept. If you do not understand the Stress/Adaptation/Recovery Cycle it is very difficult to progress someone from one level of strength to another in a systematic, programmable, predictable, effective way.

People assume they are strong enough.

Weak people assume their health problems are not strength problems – and they are wrong. Here are some examples:

The guy who thinks his back problem is because of tight hamstrings or because he just has a “bad back.” You suggest he should get stronger, and he says, “Well okay, but I am a pretty active guy. I have an active job.” When you teach him to deadlift, he doesn’t have the strength to hold his back in extension against the load. You ask him to squat, and he thinks he can’t because he has a “bad back,” and he is afraid to try for fear of injuring himself again.

Or the lady who had her knees replaced and is surprised that she still has knee pain when going up and down stairs. You suggest it might be because her legs aren’t strong enough. She asks, “How can my leg strength make my knees hurt?”

Or the high school girl with “patello-femoral pain syndrome.”

Or the 40-year-old woman with an aching shoulder who just “has a bad rotator cup” (as they say in Lock Haven, PA).

I get this too: if you have never take the time to get strong, you have never felt the benefit of being stronger. Most people have never experienced what living as a strong person feels like. Strong people don’t hurt everyday.

So why don’t people stick to the program? Human Nature can be a problem, and good coaches have learned to deal with it.

Productive strength training can be boring.

Some people begin the program, but are quickly bored and distracted by the swing burpees on Facebook. You begin a client on a LP and three weeks into the program their squats start looking like crap. When you ask about the change, they report that training 3 days a week didn’t feel like enough, so they started  running for a 10k. “There just wasn’t enough cardio. I miss my long runs after work.” This is a case study in not understanding the Stress/Recovery/Adaptation Cycle.

As the coach, you must explain: If you want real results, you can’t go to gym for just the feeling you get from that day's workout. People workout on this basis all the time, and this is why most people don’t look the way they want to look or perform the way they want to. Productive training can be boring. So is balancing your checkbook, and following a diet. Sorry. Life gives you what you put into it.

Humans hate to do things that are difficult.

“Lifting heavy is stressful, and I worry about it all day! Lifting weights doesn’t reduce my stress level – it increases it!” This is really the best argument I have heard. Training is stressful – intentionally so. Stress applied correctly and recovered from correctly produces the adaptation you train for.

How many people “love barbell training” the first 3 weeks of their LP, but change their tune when the lifting gets hard? You cannot half-ass your way through a hard work set. And when you are done with one set of 5, you have 2 more. People aren’t good at hard. Most have never trained hard enough or long enough to make any real or lasting change in their physical capacity.

So instead, when it gets hard they reset to lighter weights. Or change exercises: they may decide they need to high-bar squat, which of course requires a deload. People like comfort. Deadlifts and Squats aren’t comfortable. Which is why they get you strong. As the coach, you must explain. 

Humans are impatient.

It takes time to get strong. It is an investment of focus and energy and lots of time. We, of course, want it done yesterday. Sometimes, despite very significant measurable progress, people are quick to abandon the program. This often occurs just as real change was starting to happen. “Where is my instant gratification? Where are my huge biceps? Where is my squat booty? Why don’t I feel sore? Then I would feel like I did something…”

“Well,” you explain, “you did do something. And then you quit, because you didn't appreciate what was happening, and you didn't understand the timeline. You didn't learn from your childhood, your education, and your adult life that it takes time to accomplish any worthwhile goal. You were impatient.”

Humans are fearful.

People are afraid to lift heavy. Men are afraid of hernias. Women are afraid of “bulk.” There are a million cultural stigmas that make noise in peoples ears:

“Strong is the new skinny.”  I personally hate this one, because it seems to me that the girls who say it really mean, “It's trendy to lift weights, as long as they're not too heavy.” Girls can be afraid of heavy weights. More like: “Kind of strong is better than emaciated.”

“You are going to hurt yourself!”

“Yeah dude, you might bust a nut!”

“What if my jeans don’t fit?”

“What if I lose my abs?”

“What if my swim coach finds out?”

We like to stay in the world of the familiar, of what we already know. Most people are just reluctant to let go of their preconceived ideas of health and fitness. But what if they did? What if people began to decide to apply themselves to learn about being strong? What if they invested time and attention to learning? What if they stopped listening to the fitness hype?

“Our strength, more than any other thing we possess, determines the quality and quantity of time here in our bodies.” You are not strong enough. Simple works. Accept that it might be boring and hard, at first, but that getting stronger is not boring. Be Patient. Face your fears. Learn about how to get strong. Find a coach. Follow the program. Change your life. 


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