I want to talk today about a viewpoint I've heard about for years, and how I've come to realize it may not be as motivating and productive as I've been used to thinking.
The commonly held mentality of "just do it" has inspired people for years now, and I've seen it in action at gyms and on fitness writings so many times. Get through the reps, complete the set, run the whole distance, lift the prescribed weight, whatever. "You owe it to yourself to complete this workout and not wimp out." But is this can-do attitude helpful and motivating? Is "you can do it" an encouraging kind of pressure? Or is it just macho and extremist, and is it likely to result in injury and setbacks? What does it mean for me in my fitness goals?
The completionist attitude
What I think of as “the completionist attitude” is the common idea that you should do whatever it takes and push through any obstacle in order to achieve a goal. For exercise communities this is the push to finish the workout, push yourself beyond your limits, and beat your personal records. Which can be great! They're trying to encourage you to push against your limits because you only grow when you're uncomfortable and have to overcome some obstacle. Nike says it with their legendary slogan “Just do it”--which could imply, “get it done, no matter the cost.”
It’s great to motivate people to achieve personal fitness goals. But the “just do it” completionist attitude could be misguided. For optimal health and fitness, the goal shouldn't be just to complete the workout; it should be to complete the workout with perfect form and get the maximum benefit from it. If the goal becomes to complete the workout at all costs, at the sacrifice of form, in both the long and short term, people may underperform, hurt themselves, and have a hard-to-measure sense of progress.
For example--I saw a very buff guy at CrossFit yesterday with terrible double-under form. He could do them by timing it right, and so he could count off the numbers on the workout and get it done, but he was tucking his knees way up and no one was correcting him. I, being a beginner to CrossFit but an avid student of technique, was concerned about this lack of focus or proper coaching--the “just get it done” mentality at work. I know this issue from my music background, too: if a guitar player teaches himself and learns horrible technique, he might be able to learn the skill to a certain point, but at the high levels of performance he will fall short and not be able to do the same things the people with good technique can do. So will he run into problems when he tries to do too many reps or at too high intensity? (There is a thorough post about some dangers associated with CrossFit here.)
The potential problem with CrossFit
I’ve definitely heard the criticism that CrossFit, with its high intensity workouts and group class format, can lead to people pushing through the reps and doing exercises incorrectly, possibly getting hurt. [I imagine in some boxes more than others,] CrossFit has the “just do it” mentality built in. While the workouts are scaled to each person, the goal is to do them to do very high intensity (weights and reps), and push yourself to get through it and build strength. Unfortunately they don’t always add in the part, “But only if you’re doing it correctly every time”--we know it’s important to stop if you see your form going to shit, because it’ll be harmful to you in the long run to train incorrectly and ingrain a pattern of movement that will hurt your body. This more balanced approach is the reason leaders like Jason Sieb state that they do not teach “CrossFit” at their gyms (his philosophy here).
Form follows function, right?
Learning proper exercise form is so critical to our movements in and out of the gym. Everyone knows you can hurt yourself if you lift heavy weights wrong, so why don’t we focus more on proper form rather than pushing through the prescribed weights and reps? (And for that matter, why don’t we encourage proper form in all movement? We know from Kelly Starrett that 10,000 steps a day with duck feet (“10,000 insidious loads,” he says) will wear your knees out in 30 years instead of the 110 they were designed for. We can end up with flat feet because we walk wrong, something that can affect us our whole lives.) The main way to learn the correct technique for lifting heavy weighs is to practice it with lighter weights--so why aren’t we making sure CrossFitters and people who do other workouts learn the right form first?
In the end, does this mean that CrossFit is no good? No, no way. CrossFit can be awesome. The community and paradigm are strong; it’s great to practice real human movements in a formal exercise setting; and its popularity is bringing strength training, anti-inflammatory diets, and an alternative to steady-state cardio to the masses (Chris Kresser’s piece “Why you may need to exercise less” is great background on this). What this does mean is that in a CrossFit or any workout, we must recognize our individual responsibility to do our own personal best and know our limits. When I work out (alone or in a group) I am responsible for my own body and making sure I perform to the best of my ability and use correct form. No one can watch me all the time for perfect technique or tell me when I’ve done enough reps, and no one coach can be enforce all the time. Instead, you have to take the coaching, your previous experience, and your knowledge of your own body, and use those tools to know when to stop, thereby truly getting the most out of your workout. If you’re not sure you’re doing something right, stop. If you're not sure the coach is giving you correct advice, stop. If someone is telling you to do something in a way that doesn’t work for your body, don’t do it. If something is too hard, scale it down. You need to be educated about what is acceptable discomfort and what is unacceptable pain. You do that by pushing yourself to the point where you find your limits--not beyond at the expense of form. You are only answerable to yourself and you’re the only one who knows how to take best are of you.
So while I appreciate Nike’s slogan and motivation to achieve optimal fitness, it only works to a point. “Just do it” and completion for completion’s sake are not the motto I want to ascribe to. How about “Do my best” or something instead?
Do you have a fitness motto that works for you? Have you built up strength and made progress with a completionist or possibly more moderate mentality?