PUBLIC: The Future of Fitness
This past weekend, James and I drove down to Phoenix on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday to the Perform Better Meeting of the Minds Summit. Some of the considered leaders of our industry, including Tom Myers, Don Chu, John Berardi, Mark Verstegan and Mike Boyle presented on their vision of the future of fitness. Each speaker was given about two hours to discuss what their current practice was, why they thought it was the best (with a little bit of shameless selling and self-promotion thrown in), and where they thought the industry was headed. Ironically, many of them claimed to be doing now what the industry will consider commonplace in the future. I highly respect the “alpha” in their personality and their confidence and don’t really feel it is all that shameless to make that claim. They are only expressing their belief in themselves, and prophesying a future with themselves continuing to lead the pack. At the end of the seminar, the organizer of the event asked the audience to express their “take-aways” from the weekend. I sat there silently and listened for a while before I decided that I needed some time away from the speakers to write and figure out what I actually took away from the weekend. After formalizing my thoughts, I have decided that the future of personal training, preventative health care, strength coaches, soft tissue manipulation therapists, and all the other professions in our community, is split into two distinct categories: general health and elite performance. Like all great dichotomies, the distinction is quite grey! (thanks to us health nuts trying to maximize our fitness potential) But I will assume that everyone reading this has an understanding of the difference between those two categories.
The average person of today is unwell. People come up with all sorts of politically correct verbiage to ensure that they don’t offend people, but the truth is, we are unhealthy. Just a few metrics one can use to make claim that we are unhealthy: body fat numbers are up, lab value norms are adjusted to reflect bell curves of a group of less healthy people, we are dying younger than our parents’ generation, our food quality is deteriorating, our healthcare is on the verge of bankrupting the system, and so on. On a more personal basis, as a strength coach, I’ve also seen a general deterioration in proper movement patterns, proprioceptive abilities, and crippling postures from the nature of our lifestyles. As part of the weekend, John Berardi, a nutritional biochemist considered an expert in his field, gave a very solid presentation on the simplicity of nutritional prescriptions for fat loss. He made the recommendation, when dealing with the everyday person, that you only give someone one thing to change at a time otherwise people can’t make those habitual changes permanent. Reflecting back, that speech and dialogue with James, made me realize more than ever, that the future of fitness for everyday people hinges on simplicity in prescription. Many of the fitness systems out there encourage people to add more complexity to their already spastic lifestyles. The complexity of movements that the average person is using for their training, without proper progression into those movements, is staggering: Olympic lifting movements, gymnastics movements, suspended stability systems, and the list goes on. In my opinion, all of those are a smoke screen created by our industry to hide the fact that for most people, what we do for a living is quite simple a majority of the time! Most people can benefit from four simple things: eat better, learn to move again, do some proper resistance training, and some properly designed energy system training. The odd thing about our declining physical health, which inspires me, is that against this declining trend of general health, athletic performance is continuing to rise in the face of that deteriorating majority.
Every human barometer for performance is continually being challenged by the youthful generations to follow. Track records are always being broken (as always referenced famously by the “Banister effect” and the four minute mile), the combine results of NFL football players make mere mortals, like myself, laugh at our mediocrity, and the average size and athleticism of NBA players is frightening in comparison to their peers of the past. During the weekend, Tom Myers, the author of Anatomy Trains, presented on “The Future of Fascial Fitness.” Tom was the most enjoyable and captivating speaker to me based on his dry humor, political tirades, and passion for his craft. Myers during his speech began giving examples of the variability in human anatomy. He went on to explain that almost every physical therapist manual portrays every one to have the same muscular anatomy. Myers spoke in more depth about four specific variations in human anatomy, and continuing on that variability exists in almost every structure in the human body. He referenced the two most variable muscles in the human body being the lat and the pec. All I could think about when he said that was “…I wonder what variation in the lat would allow for the least amount of force production needed to do a pullup,” and “…I wonder what variation in the pec would allow for the greatest force production in the bench press.” Then he also referenced a muscle in the neck that 50% of people have that attaches to the top of the lung and ‘lifts’ it, which may or may not add to lung volume. I thought to myself, “…I probably don’t have that considering I sound like a choking water buffalo when I try to run 400 meters at 80%.” As the talk progressed on, in the typical fashion of my child like attention span, I started daydreaming about the future of athlete selection.
I had this dramatic vision of scientists taking DNA samples and defected Chinese sports scientists measuring fetus’ limb length and genetic muscular variations to place them into athlete development programs right out of the hospital. Although I was slightly humored by my own mind at work, the truth may not be so far off. Parents and coaches are already athletic screening children at a younger and younger age now. Look around elite youth basketball camps and you will see a ton of calves with high insertion points, small waists, long legs, and great hand eye coordination. Young elite weightlifters tend to be stocky powerhouses with wide hips and short relative limb length. Young cross-country runners are super slender with little upper body mass. The similar characteristics of elite performers in their sports is staggering when you compare it to the innate human variability. I do understand that there are exceptions to every generalization (ie Nate Robinson being 5’9” and in the NBA). I also am aware that Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers and Mathew Syed in Bounce: How Champions are Made also have given hope to the entire “mediocre” athlete population that you can become elite with your 10,000 hours of perfect practice. It is indeed arguable whether the stressors we impose upon those young children develop those characteristics or they are born with those characteristics that make them perform well…the chicken or egg indeed. While I do think that skills take an amount of time to master and improve, I disagree when it comes to elite sport that athletic potential can be developed with methodical practice. The vision of OPT in the future of our on site testing facility is to understand what makes the Rich Fronings, Josh Bridges, AJ Moores, Nate Shraeders, etc better than the rest of us in the sport of fitness. Performing lactate tests, watching respiration variability through training sessions, evaluating hormone panels, and looking at limb lengths are some of the ways we hope to determine what it takes to be elite. When thinking back at the speakers now, I understand what they were saying when they were patting themselves on the back claiming “I am the future.” If you aren’t ahead of what is current in sport, then you have been left behind. In a sport as young as fitness, there are people out there testing methods, experimenting on themselves, and constantly pushing the limits of capacity. Over time we hope to have more answers.
With all great scientific breakthroughs, finding more answers seems to bring on more complex questions. My vision of our future has answers to the questions we are trying to solve on a daily basis. We’re not sure whether or not our methods are best, but we are confident that they are better than some alternatives. Down the road, the methods may change, but the fact of the matter is that you must always question convention to make progress. Although it may be cliché to bring up the time where the world laughed at people who claimed the world was round, that is where are industry is today. New methods are constantly being laughed at by old schools of thought, then implemented into their own methods. The thought of change inspires me when my ideas clash with the training textbooks and literature I read. I am not naïve to think that answers to these questions will do anything but elicit more questions. But, one day in the future we may “reap what we sow” and actually get answers to some of the questions we were looking for, which may not be what we actually wanted to find out.
At some point down the road, with advances in science, testing, and medicine that we are all a part of, we may be able to determine absolute genetic potential. Imagine a time when someone walks into your facility and you can tell him or her exactly what he or she will be capable if they listen to everything you say. The human element of sport may potentially be lost to a time where the power of will and determination may no longer provide the same belief in oneself that we see in today’s sports. Watching the underdog come from behind and take down the powerhouse was built into the human psyche all the way back to the story of David and Goliath was first told, and perhaps even before than that. But now, how often do we see guys like Usain Bolt lose? How often do the cream of the crop lose to the “best of the rest”? Seems to be much less frequently. I do think that time is off in the distant future, so we have plenty of time to continue to have a use for people trying to find those limits. (job security?) Until then, we will continue to Test, hypothesize, make mistakes, and stumble upon golden nuggets, to keep our job fun and unpredictable.
So, I guess in closing, my vision of the near future yields a very easy prescription. As we move forward in society, we must simplify our prescription to improve the masses. We must help people help themselves. And as we move forward in sport, we must continue to challenge conventional wisdom and look for answers to break through our perceived limitations.