The following is a fantastic article written by our intern, Erik McLeod. Enjoy!
So I’m at dinner with my family and a couple of their friends. As expected, it becomes known to the group that I’m a kinesiology major, so the obligatory tangential conversations about fitness, “why does my knee hurt when I stand up,” and so forth ensues.
Family friend: “I go to the gym a lot.”
Me: “Yeah? How much do you squat?”
Family friend: “Oh I don’t really do that kinda stuff. I’m not trying to get super strong or anything. I’m more focused on general fitness, you know? But I CAN leg press over 200lbs for a clean 5 reps.”
We all know that person, and I must confess: I absolutely loathe having this conversation with them. But I say that with the utmost empathy, because I was once that person. I know what it’s like trying to learn about lifting with absolutely no guidance. I’ve seen the YouTube videos and read all of the guides. It sucks. Should I start by making my biceps big? What about Arnold? But aren’t I suppose to train like an athlete? But what if I just want to look good?
Mainstream fitness information is unnecessarily confusing and abstract. Everybody is trying to figure out everything about exercise, and everyone is an expert because everyone has a body and internet access. That’s essentially where we are in our current outlook on health and fitness. Part of the problem is that the overwhelming majority of freely accessible fitness information is, at best, absolutely useless. You simply cannot POSSIBLY make an advanced or elite athlete out of someone by applying the information presented in most YouTube videos, guides, “programs” written by “experts,” whatever. There’s a ton of crap out there and it’s always the easiest to find. The average individual doesn’t want to spend hundreds of hours sifting through this mile-high heap of trash just to find the few golden doubloons. Worse yet, they probably don’t even know those golden doubloons exist.
The fitness “industry” constantly fails to convey the right information in the right format to the right people. The average individual is typically convinced that exercises like squats, deadlifts, military presses, power cleans, etc. are too sport-specific, dangerous, and barbaric to be worth their resources. And there’s always proof that they’re right. X study showed that people who deadlifted more often had higher injury rates. Y study showed that leg extensions elicited similar EMG activity as barbell back squats. There’s always a study. There just always is. And everyone is apparently qualified to conduct their own analyses of these studies. So the average individual feels like he or she is doing the right thing in passing on all the meaty exercises. After all, they’re just trying to become more generally fit, not professionally strong.
...that last sentence was painful to write.
“General fitness.” What does this term even mean now? Being really good at blasting a 1-hour circuit of bicep and tricep supersets in a million different angles/orientations? Being good at crushing a treadmill for 20 minutes while holding onto the rails?
Saying you train for general fitness doesn’t excuse you from serious strength training. It qualifies you for it. Squatting, deadlifting, pressing, and pulling encompass all important human movement. They aren’t just things that powerlifters do. Getting better at those movements makes you better at things in general. Yes, things in general. Everything we do, every single day, involves squatting, deadlifting, pressing, and pulling. If you don’t believe me, pay attention the next time you sit in or get out of your chair, pick a heavy package up off the ground, or move your furniture around because you want to rearrange the living room.
We’re better than what mainstream health and fitness outlets tell us. Humans aren’t fragile. Injuries are rare, easily avoidable, and, ironically, are usually the result of doing “harmless” workouts like extended jogs in expensive running shoes. There’s no reason why a healthy 70 year old shouldn’t be doing some sort of deadlift in his or her training, or why an 8 year old shouldn’t learn how to barbell squat. These people are perfectly capable of getting stronger. And if they can do it, everyone else in between certainly can and should too. We’re more than well equipped - physically, mentally, and physiologically - to undergo 3 or more days per week of hard physical training that involves squatting, deadlifting, pressing, and pulling progressively heavier objects. And we should be doing those things, because we’re always doing those things regardless.
You can’t become physically fit accidentally, or without really trying to get fit. Fitness is achieved through effective goal setting, consistency, responsibility, and hard work. It isn’t achieved through careless strolling around the gym in an attempt to get a sweet pump and maintain a targeted heart rate, and it certainly isn’t achieved by constantly changing your workout routine to accommodate the every ounce of information that reaches the mainstream.
Training isn’t a social endeavor. There’s no vanity in training. It isn’t something to brag about. You train because you should train, because everyone is inherently obligated to be physically fit. You owe it to your body to make it physically stronger and more durable, because it’s the only body you’ve got, and it’s the only body you’ll ever have. Without strength, no athletic characteristics can follow. If you want to jump high, your legs must be strong enough so that your body feels relatively light. Same goes for if you want to run a marathon, or swim faster, for longer, or anything. You must be strong before you do anything else, and the best way to get strong is to squat, deadlift, press, and pull heavy barbells and weights. If you want to become more generally fit, start by becoming stronger, because strength is both the harbinger and arbiter of physical fitness.