The Mental Game of Strength & Conditioning
Fitness is sorely lacking in a cerebral component. For some reason the physical has become disconnected from the mental – except, perhaps, in the most banal and superficial ways possible (“it’s all in your head” or other such painful clichés). Mass-market fitness focuses entirely on appealing to the visceral, foregoing any pretense of intellectualism and reducing its opinion of the public to a horde of slobbering idiots. Truth be told, you don’t have to be a scholar of any discipline to be fit, but it doesn’t hurt. At times it seems an impossibility to rectify strength and conditioning with intellectual pursuits, but this week we’ll talk about how it might be possible to be both the brains and the brawn.
A friend of mine referred me to an obscure academic citation attributed to a theologian named Macarius Aegypticus that, I think, sums up my personal training philosophy quite aptly, and also presents an interesting talking point on the subject of how we view fitness: is it inappropriate to bring academia to the gym? Some of the best coaches in the world have devised their training methodologies from a fusion of exercise science and cultural philosophies, but, on the other hand, is it uncouth to bring our physical training into our ideological discussions? The marginalization of fitness and strength training has reduced the opinion of physical culture (the culmination of the aforementioned physical pursuits) in the minds of academic scholars, artists and other such “brains” to the point of distaste. There are exceptions, of course, but all too often such intelligentsia view engagement in physical activity as a base necessity – a health-related necessity that is wholly separate and a distraction from that which is truly necessary, or important. Seneca (a Roman Stoic), warned against too much time spent in exercise, claiming that students “…waste their life-force and render it less fit to bear a strain or the [more severe] studies.” There is truth in abbreviated training, both scientifically and mentally, but is it so hard to combine the pursuits of the flesh and the mind? Christian Ascetes, according to Foucault, devoted themselves so fully to the pursuit of theological thought that they entirely ignored their physical being.
And let us not forget those who revel in the physical: athletes, competitors, lifters, runners and grapplers – the ones who find joy and fulfillment in movement. There is an indefinable ecstasy in physical activity (which could, of course, be traced back to raised serotonin, endorphins and the like – but that’s not today’s point) that brings them back, day after day, yet they hesitate to reconcile this communion with movement against their philosophies, ideologies and beliefs. The realm of the book holds little for them beyond reference, and they scoff at discussions of the metaphysical, for there is time for the body, and separately, the mind.
Let me return to my original point: Aegypticus asserts that as there are five senses of body, there are similarly five senses of the soul: knowledge, understanding, discernment, endurance and mercy. There are similes that jump quickly to the mind, and I shall leave you to determine these in terms of your own exercise program. Instead, let us examine these five senses as they relate to the foundational philosophies of Second Nature Fitness: Aegypticus mentions no particular order to his senses of the soul, but I would suggest that knowledge begets understanding, and understanding, discernment. Discernment provides us with endurance in the form of patience, and patience allows us mercy. Once we are informed (knowledge) we are able to become aware (understanding) and that allows us to take a critical eye (discernment). Endurance is the easiest sense to translate into the physical, but consider it more on the level of persistence and patience: with the ability to be an educated and discerning student, whether it be of the physical or academic, we must process that much more information before reaching truth. We view mercy not so much as compassion (though it could be suggested that denying our bodies mercy in the gym teaches us to be merciful to others), but instead an expression of strength: through the cultivation of power and will, we learn the truest meaning of strength.
What the hell is all of this supposed to mean, you may ask? A mentor of mine by the name of Chip Conrad wrote a book entitled Lift With Your Head wherein he explores the philosophy of weight training and the importance of critical thinking, both in the gym and out. All too often we become complacent in life, and the gym is no exception: days and nights overfilled with information and white noise leave us seeking quietude and direction. Unfortunately, too many fall prey to the siren call of muscle magazines and infomercials, losing themselves to treadmills, fluorescent lights and chrome EZ curl bars. Conrad suggests that we instead need to seek knowledge, informing ourselves in the why, not just the what. That aforementioned tsunami of information can be daunting, though, and intimidating in its manufactured aggression, but now that we’re all enlightened physical culturists, we have the tools to absorb, process and implement anything the world throws at us.
Tyler Welch is the Strength & Conditioning Coach at Neutral Ground Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He is also the founder of Second Nature Fitness, an active Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu competitor, and a whole lot of other stuff that means he paid a bunch of people to teach him things about fitness. Follow him at www.twitter.com/secondnaturefit, www.myspace.com/secondnaturefitness, Facebook and www.secondnaturefitness.org
See a list of previous USCS Strength & Conditioning articles here.