Friday, May 8, 2009


Exercise, in a gym, say, is not about the movements you see there, or the weights being moved. It's about two entirely different things. First, it's about the body's training response, hormonal and neuromuscular, which we've discussed before. The movement of the weight is just a way of getting a signal sent to the brain, which responds, if the signal is strong enough, by causing the release of some amount of hormones, amount again depending on the magnitude of the signal. Small stress, small signal, small response, small benefit. Like with curls or flies or any other isolation exercise. You're not isolating the muscle. You're doling out the hormones in tiny itsy bitsy little droplets. Use demanding weight, systemically, and an endocrinal demand will be generated. So that's one function of training. Hormones. And of course, recruiting untrained motor units, so that muscle fiber that exists but is not subject to volition becomes available. Without a gram of protein being added to a cell, overall strength can be doubled.

The other function of real training has to do with the mind. It's about resetting the subconscious, the autonomic safety gauges that the brain presets to where it thinks the safe place is. But the brain is an old lady crossing guard, looking not just to keep us safe, but to keep us weak and dependent. Now be careful. Don't run. Hold my hand. We never outgrow that, unless we outgrow it. We do so by demonstrating that we can handle new responsibilities. It's like the red zone that the dashboard gauge needle isn't supposed to get near -- but the red starts way too soon. 15 miles per hour. Zoom.

It's by pushing into fatigue that we convince the brain that false signals of fatigue are an unnecessary safety measure. Recalibrate the gauges. Not all, but some fatigue is not real. It's the nagging of the crossing guard, chiding us to go back even when there's no hint of actual danger. Hysterical handwaving in the form of nausea and tunnel vision, and negative self-talk, and phony excuses that nobody else really believes but they don't want to shame us, because then maybe we'll do the same to them. Meantime the brain does whatever it takes to preserve us from the very hint of real stress.

Back when I used to teach human reproduction to 12 year olds, I'd tell the girls, "Your body wants to be pregnant. You don't, but it does. It will lie to you, and make you feel all sorts of things, and change the timing of your menstrual cycle, so that it can be pregnant, which is what it wants." Well? Same thing here. Your brain wants you to be safe, and when you're looking to become excellent, safe translates into weak, and slow, and not athletic. Don't blame it. That's its job. Your job is to train it until it learns something better.

It's about emotional unfocus, mental weakness, negative self-talk, eagerness to fail, our ingenuity at finding excuses, our willingness to believe the deals we make so we may strive less -- deals we don't even keep ... I'll run to that tree and then I can walk ... but I start walking even before I get there.

That's the big problem. Call it emotion. The other problem, of hormones, is just biology, and it's mechanistic. Stimulus and response. The properly functioning body doesn't have a choice. It's a dog, that you train. It will obey. The master should be in charge. Like with Confucius, who slapped the father when the child cursed. Generate the signal, and a hormonal discharge is elicited. Flip the switch and the light comes on. If it doesn't, it's not because you didn't flip the switch, it's because something is broken. We're not talking about broken ... well, not broken biology. Broken habits -- or unbroken, rather, left over from babyhood.

Bad habits and weak minds. Weak is okay. We all start out as babies; but babies know how to do only one thing: get stronger. Everything they do is designed to help them survive and grow. The behaviours that are well suited to this specific task under those specific conditions, however, become maladaptive with age and ability. Yet we hold on to them. They are, if you'll allow a serious application of the term, the root of p-factor. The whining and fussing and pretending and self-pity and transparent manipulations. It's infantile.

Who are we trying to fool with all this noise? Ourselves, mostly. Which is sort of sad, but it's universal, this temptation, the same way that the healthy human form follows a predictable pattern. The mind follows patterns as well. The differences between us, those who prevail and those who quit, have to do with how we respond to the voices in our heads.

And that is the point. Which voices to listen to, and more specifically, which voice we deliberately summon up in times of great physical stress. Because ideas matter in more than just our public conduct. They matter in how we motivate ourselves, and in how we fail.

So I'm thinking that part of the workout is about generating a deliberately positive, empowering internal monologue, even if it feels like a lie. A monologue of success rather than of discouragement. Because the mind-body connection is clear. The placebo effect is real. Game face is real. And isn't it obvious, that if the lying voices telling us to give up can have an effect, then another voice, that says we can succeed, may not be lying at all? -- even if it feels like a lie? Because we can succeed. At any possible thing. And doing better, running faster, lifting more, working harder -- this is not possible? That's the lying voice again.

It's called rewriting the script. Because the old dialogue sucks, and another unhappy ending is not appropriate for these characters -- you and me.

I think I'll do some actual research on this.


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