Nick is truly obsessed with developing technical excellence in everything he does whether he’s writing songs for experimental indi pop groups or lifting ridiculously heavy weights without mussing his hair. Here he reveals the secret to his superpowers: Nerdiness.
- A crucible of pain and ordeal in which the worthy temper themselves into elite paragons of achievement and beauty.
- A testing environment in which superior character is revealed and your primal worthiness as a human being can be objectively defined .
Is this conception familiar to you?
How about this one:
- A combination of army drill sergeant, life mentor, spiritual guide and infallible fitness expert.
- An exemplar of physical achievement with a hyper-natural connection to the intangible heart of physical excellence.
If these definitions seem commonplace rather than laughable then there’s a good chance you’ve spent some time in the modern first-world fitness environment.
Now, I’m as much a fan of heroic narrative as the next person, but the deeper I get into my practice as a PT and strength coach, the more the current discourse and language around gym training concerns me.
‘Pain is weakness leaving the body’. ‘Failure is not an option’. ‘Something something Beast Mode etc’. All very pithy and galvanizing. On the other side there’s these, ‘I know what to do, I just don’t do it’. ‘I’m just lazy, I hate exercise’. ‘I don’t have the willpower’.
- An intrinsic ability to work hard and be disciplined under harrowing conditions.
- An innate potential to do the things that others won’t or can’t
- A trait that can reach full flower via the perfect combination of having a great coach and being a mentally tough athlete.
This is a definition that we’re all very comfortable with, right? Everyone knows that some people are just better than others, right? Some people have ‘the right stuff’, ‘what it takes’, etc.
We also know that drawing out someone’s best performance involves working them under the toughest conditions, right?
Before I take this line any further, I should level with you. I’m not a very tough person. I like living pain-free, in comfortable surrounds and at a pleasant temperature. As a general rule I like to get along with people and make them feel good. I’m not keen on yelling, and I’m naturally suspicious of inspirational quotes or memes. The only time I’m an alpha male is in a karaoke bar. To reiterate, I’m not tough.
On the other hand, the sport that I compete in, freestyle wrestling, is very tough. Just training for it requires high levels of strength, power and endurance, as well as the durability to be smacked against the ground a few hundred times a week.
So how has a non-tough guy like me, low on natural talent and late to the game, managed to compete in such an uncompromising environment?
The answer is nerdiness.
What do I mean? Well just for instance, ask me about the energy systems involved in my sport, the specific breakdown of aerobic, anaerobic and phosphate. Ask me about the bio-mechanics of sound combat sport footwork.
Ask me about optimal recovery envelopes for super-compensation. Ask me about sports-specific strength training. Ask me about macro-cycles and neural adaptation and Prilepin’s Table. Just don’t ask me unless you have at least an hour to kill (probably better just to wait for future columns).
The brain I use for fitness is the same one I’ve always used for cataloging comic books and vintage punk records. When I’m not in the gym (which is often), I’m frequently geeking out on the history, science and modern cultural movements in sports and exercise.
Partly it’s just the way I was made, partly it’s the mentors that I’ve trained under, but most of all it’s that I don’t want to be hurt. I want to spend as much of my life feeling good and having as great a time as possible, and I want my sport to be a part of that for many many years to come. I will use every fact and figure available and ignore any popular ‘wisdom’ I need to to achieve that.
Don’t get me wrong, wrestling for me is a brutal, ego-crushing Everest that I climb a millimeter at a time, and my athletic career is nothing to hang a reputation from (I’m nationally ranked in Australia which means my skills are equivalent to the average Bulgarian 12-year old).
The thing is, I don’t value the sport for it’s toughness or it’s status among sports (good thing too, because it has zero status in this country). I value it for it’s reality.
It’s a sport that can only be won one way, that is, by doing it more correctly than the other guy. Attitude is a huge, essential part, but there’s no sudden underdog victories achieved through determination and believing in yourself. Just correct application of trained strategy and response. Sexy right?
So my sport has influenced my sensibility, but more important still has been my experience with clients. A giant nerd like myself tends to attract nerdy clients, often people who weren’t part of a sports or gym culture before they came to work with me.
That means that I’ve had to be conscious of presenting the gym as an accessible, culturally neutral space in which people can build a knowledge base about their own bodies. In the process I’ve developed some very specific definitions that guide my practice:
- A classroom environment containing purpose built equipment, in which physical skills can be learned and refined.
- A laboratory environment in which principles of physical development can be enacted and tested under safe conditions.
Safe conditions. Here’s where my personal bias becomes obvious.
As an athlete I know that the world of sport is one of risk and unpredictability and I relish that.
In the heat of competition, victory is often achieved by pushing yourself beyond your normal safe operational parameters, and the ability to do that doesn’t appear spontaneously. I encourage my athlete-clients to compete in their sport frequently to help build the capacity and judgment to take it to ‘the place’ when required.
When programming for said athletes, I build specific, deliberate moments into the workouts in which they push their parameters beyond the platonic ideal of technical perfection. But note that I say moments. I expect the vast majority of reps performed in the gym to be as close to perfect as possible.
As a client myself, I still train under my long-term strength coach. I look at the gym as a tool to ensure that the body I take into the ring is as resistant to the unexpected as possible.
I have hours of wrestling technique to learn and practice every week, I need to bring as much mental focus and physical freshness to that process as possible. To that end, my strength and conditioning sessions need to comprise the minimum amount of work necessary for me to get stronger and fitter, no more.
As a gym coach, I know that there is no reasonable scenario in which my client should ever be injured in the gym.
In my six years doing this type of work I’ve had one (minor) client injury occur and it was a direct result of my ignorance and incorrect application of knowledge. I don’t intend for it to ever happen again. People are putting their physical wellbeing in my hands, and that responsibility can’t be overstated.
Safety aside, people are coming to me for results. Not endorphins or a sense of community or improved self-image, although those are all likely side-benefits.
They come to me wanting to transform their bodies in specific ways, and my job is to make sure it happens. Sure, it’s ultimately up to them since it’s their choice to keep showing up, but I need to know that if they do, then they’ll get the results they want. It’s not easy, but it’s not really that difficult either.
My clients will tell you that I’m not a shout-y call-you-to-get-you-out-of-bed trainer. I don’t ‘push’ my clients in the traditional sense. So what’s my actual job, as I see it?
- A teacher who specialises in the skills required for physical transformation, relative to athletic performance, injury rehabilitation or general functional movement.
- A coach who facilitates the acquisition of specific goals for individuals or groups.
I have a skill set and a knowledge base. The things I know take time to learn, but they can all be learned by a human of average intelligence. You can pay me to teach them to you. That, to me, is the only service that I offer, the only thing I have worth charging for.
Good teaching is my sole product, because the knowledge is free. I have no special secret system, everything I know is already out there. My business lives and dies on my ability to communicate it to people who would otherwise find it cryptic and forbidding. In doing so, I’ve discovered something really cool.
Willpower isn’t a thing. Not the way it’s been sold anyway. While it is absolutely essential to be consistent, do the work, and move outside your comfort zone, the mechanism for doing so is simple and quantifiable.
People do things that they understand. When you can draw a line between an action and a positive outcome, you’ll do that action again. The more clearly you comprehend a process and how it works, the easier it is to invest in it. No faith required.
Stay tuned for Part 2 – Practical Examples!
Nick is the band you discovered in highschool long before anyone else did. He is available for Personal Training and instructs the Strength & Power and Freestyle Wrestling programs. Check out his personal site Form=Function.