The Activity / Exercise / Training Continuum

by Keith Norris

“Many are stubborn in pursuit of the path they have chosen,  few in pursuit of the goal.” –  Nietzsche

  

Mark Rippetoe recently posted a fantastic “Crossfit analysis” article over T-Nation.  This is a very honest, non-sensationalized critique of the behemoth that is Crossfit.  It’s an excellent read, and I highly recommend that you check it out, here.

One area, though that I feel needs a bit more explanation (and I understand that the aforementioned T-Nation article wasn’t necessarily the place for it)  is the exercise/training comparison that Ripp establishes in the piece.  More to the point, I think what we’re actually looking at here is an activity/exercise/training continuum.  A continuum that is (or ought to be) viewed through the lens of one’s Five T’s, and balanced against one’s goals.

The bulk of this discussion, of course, is no more than semantics; a kind of verbal masturbation.  Much in the exercise physiology and strength and conditioning world can be likened to the fluff that fills and fuels network TV “news”.  Individuals — like networks — have to generate content so as to stay relevant and in your ear, lest you forget about them.  And “forgetting about them” means lost  revenue.  I get it, and I don’t judge; everyone deserves the right to make a living.  But on the consumer end, we ought to be smart enough to know the difference between meaningful information and that which amounts to little more than a circle-jerk.

And much of the confusion (which generates fodder for more content…you see how this goes…) boils down to no one really “owning” the language of exercise physiology and S&C.  My definition of “exercise” might be another’s definition of “training”.  Now, we’re talking about the same thing — and in practice, achieving the same end result — but using different language to define both the modality in practice and the resultant outcome.  We see the same phenomenon in practice when talking, for example, about “intensity”.  Ask a grizzled S&C coach and a lab PhD to define the word and you’re likely to get two wildly different answers.  And that answer will change, too, depending upon the context of the conversation.

And watching this on-going struggle between the gym bros, S&C specialists and lab scientists is akin to watching the Republicans and Democrats pig-wrestle over owning the language of, say, “healthcare” or “middle class”.  I’ve got no dog in the hunt (I loath both parties), and I’m smart enough to know what the argued-over quality means in real-world terms.  That means, I may side with (or speak the language of) the gym bro, S&C specialist or PhD depending upon the situation or context.  And knowing “what the quality means in real-world terms” is what you’ll absolutely need lest you get lead down one rabbit trail after another.  I’ll keep to truth and real world results, and y’all let me know who wins the language war.

Ok, so that was a bit of a tangent.  Let’s get back to the point at hand: what’s the difference between “activity”, “exercise” and “training”?  And, maybe more to the point, why should you care?

First off I should mention that there is a crap-ton of overlap here — especially when we begin to view this through an n=1 lens.  A venn diagram of these qualities would take on the appearance of an old-school Spirograph design.  By the way, the picture at the top of the post is a Spirograph depiction of the world map…or, of the activity / exercise / training continuum — you decide ;)

Ok, so let’s dive in to how I define these terms and see the continuum.  Again, no matter what language you decide to put to this in, it’s the real-world end results that really matter.

Activity: leisurely biking, frisbee golf, “play”.  Mountain biking and surfing.  Things done for fun, and that don’t necessarily force the body into “the red zone” for the sake of prompting an adaptive response.  “Fun” or “friendly competition” is the point.  Is there an adaptive response?  Maybe, if the intensity is high enough, and of proper duration and magnitude.  But who cares?  That’s not the intent here.  I’d put mobility work and “active recovery” here as well.

Exercise: Specific and general movements and modalities performed specifically with an intent to elicit an adaptive response from the body.  Here is where displeasure, “pain”, and a certain amount of will and fortitude come into play. You want “this”?  Ya gotta suffer through “that” enters the picture.  Here is where expert S&C coaching (as opposed to activity/sport-specific skills coaching) can really make a difference.  At the extreme of this portion of the continuum is a very high degree of General Physical Preparedness (GPP).  The ability to actively and effectively engage, in a physical sense, the unknown and unknowable.  The best of Crossfit without the stupid-ass programming, hurt people, worst of Crossfit.  In an n=1 sense, this is epitome of what we do at Efficient Exercise.

Training: now we’ve crossed the Rubicon from general to specific.  The qualities that were “nice” or “cool” to maintain now fall by the wayside.  Do I care if my 220 lb running back can perform a series of muscle-ups?  Please.  His goal is to move the ball up the field, repeatedly, over one cumulative hour of actual play — and run your ass over in the process if need be.  Wash, rinse, repeat.  I can guarantee you that such a kid will never even see a set of rings if the S&C staff can keep him under complete lock down.  Including, that is, during the off season as well.  Welcome to the world of sport-specific S&C work.  And yes, many times the work done here is less excruciating than that done in the “exercise” zone.  This is confusing and confounding to some who think that “excruciating intensity” is the what-and-all that defines progress.  It is not.  Does progress in this zone require periods of this level of intensity?  Well, depending upon what we’re training for — yes, of course.  But the dose and frequency of this type work must be leavened out intelligently.  I would say, too, that the competitive nature of this zone means that “health” has necessarily taken a backseat.  We can’t serve multiple masters, and in this zone, health must be sacrificed in order to squeeze out as much performance from the body as possible.  See more on that, here.

And like I said, there is LOTS of overlap in these terms.  Some of what I would consider “activities” (extreme mountain biking and fixie cycling, for example) would be considered extreme “exercise” for someone else.  There has to be an n=1 component, here.  So this continuum — which is universal, by the way — can only make sense, and yield real-world results, when leveraged against an individual’s current ability, Five Ts, and goals.  

So, in this sense, we might be able to put the activity —> exercise —-> training continuum against a backdrop of fun —–> labor —–> artisanal work

And where do I see myself residing within the continuum?  Decidedly at the upper/outer extreme of the “exercise” continuum.  I’m not training for anything specifically, per se, but I do like to keep myself in peak GPP condition.  As an example, check out this workout from last week:

A1) Trap Bar Deadlifts: 400/10, 9, 8…1!
A2) Straight bar curls: 125/1, 2, 3…10!
Cumulative time: 26:34

By way of comparison, it took me 31 minutes to complete this same workout a few weeks ago.

Difficult, in a work capacity sense?  You bet.  Anything sport-specific here?  Not really.  This might be an off-season workout for a football player, for example — but you wouldn’t see something like this in final peak prior to the season.  And you sure as hell wouldn’t see this during the season.

So what does this all mean for you?  Well, it’s really rather basic; things you really already knew.  Like you can’t get “fit” from doing mere activity.  And that exercise — no matter how intense, bad-ass and “warrior-like” — will not “put spinners on the Bentley“.   For that you’re going to have to train, in a dedicated, intelligent and methodical manner.  In fact, this training will have to become the primary focus of your life, because there is a HUGE time investment component here.  But you can’t get to the training aspect without having first passed through the crucible of intense exercise.  In fact, losing the edge that intense exercise provides is a big reason why the mighty sometimes fall.

In health, fitness, and ancestral wellness -

Keith

 

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