Let’s say you have a student in elementary school, young Timothy Von Shackleford Jr. Timmy for short.
Timmy is sitting in class, going through his multiplication tables, ringing off the answers with increasing rapidity.
“Two times six is thirty. Five times five is forty-two. Twelve times five is one-hundred and eleven!”
Now let’s say you happen to be an observer in this classroom. What would your immediate impulse be? Are you going to congratulate Timmy on his excellent work? High five?
You’d probably feel a combination of horror, wonderment, and sympathy.
At this point, you approach Timmy’s teacher. You want to know why Timmy is doing math this way.
“He’s doing great!” is the response you hear.
His teacher continues, “Timmy’s only been in class for two weeks and already he’s finishing his multiplication table three minutes faster than when he started, and he’s even using bigger numbers!”
“But… He’s doing it wrong. Allowing him to learn this way is destroying his potential as a student. It will take years to undo this when and if he finally finds a competent teacher and he’ll never get this time back. You may very well destroy his enthusiasm for learning entirely when this catches up with him and he has to face that all his effort was for short term progress in metrics that didn’t matter.”
“Nonsense. Look, he just finished third in the class! And you can ask him yourself; this is the hardest class he’s ever had. He’s mentally exhausted when he’s done every time. Nobody else has their students learn with this intensity.”
Ludicrous, right? This never happens in our schools. We know better. And we can trust our teachers. Mostly. Even kids who wander into libraries and start learning things on their own wouldn’t take this approach.
A multiplication problem is either right or wrong. One plus one does not kind of equal four. It’s also based on a logical progression. You have to learn how to count before you learn how to add and subtract. After that, multiplication and division. Eventually, trigonometry. If trig is too much, maybe drop back a module or two until you get a better foundation and start again.
Human movement is similar, but with a lot more “fuzziness”. There isn’t a completely concrete perfect squat, push-up, or pull-up that applies to everyone. There will be some anthropometric variance and each repetition should be just slightly different. But qualitative measures still apply and doing a movement well rather than poorly matters just as much if you’re going to trade hours of your life in the gym for a stronger, healthier body as it does for Timmy who’s putting in his time in the classroom.
It’s a common assumption that basic movements should come naturally. The thing is, unless you’re three years old, your body doesn’t move naturally anymore. The longer you’ve been around, the more your body has slowly conformed to the shape of the chair in which you spend most of your day. The balanced, effortless mechanics you had as a young kid aren’t there anymore. A simple movement like a squat is probably no longer simple.
This means that when you start working out or adopt new movements, you must first deconstruct them and spend time learning to do them right. You’re going to have to make sure you can count before you jump into algebra, and that basis of precision can never be neglected.
When you’re doing pull-ups, it’s important that you lock the bar to your chest with good downward rotation at your shoulder blades so that you actually strengthen your upper back instead of adding more tension to your pec minors. Oh, and get up thereby, you know, pulling. Good lower body movement generally means that you can squat below parallel with your knees over your toes and your heels on the ground. You should be working to maintain a stable, neutral spinal curvature in your pushups and engaging your lats and retract your scapulae at the bottom.
How do you know that these things are happening when you exercise? How well do you pay attention to deviations in your movement quality in the toughest moments in your workouts? How quickly can you notice drops in quality and adjust them?
Stop worrying so much about how fast you can do it or how quickly you can pile on weights. If adding fifty pounds to the bar means that you now squat with several inches less depth, you are not making progress. You’re being deluded in the same way that Timmy is when he starts repeating that five times five is thirty-seven. You’re missing the point. Every rep is practicing error. Wrong. Wrong again. Wrong. Building a broken pattern.
Sure, you might be sore the next day. You’ll probably be tired at the end of the workout, but please understand that you’re only moving further away from long term physical freedom and athleticism.
Timmy should be in school to become more capable in mathematics, not better at saying nonsensical numbers faster. If you’re trying to make your workouts harder by going faster, increasing technical complexity, or adding weight at the expense of quality movement, you’re making the same mistake.
You may not be doing this to yourself. Perhaps you’re trusting the wrong person, or just don’t know where to turn for guidance.
Are you accumulating injuries? No, that’s not actually supposed to be part of the process. This doesn’t mean post-workout soreness, we mean the fact that you’re adding weight to your deadlift every week but can barely put your shoes on because your back is starting to ache so badly every morning. That increasingly persistent pain in your shoulder? That’s not weakness leaving the body. That’s a labral tear. It means you’re doing something wrong, and you’re doing it over and over.
Measure what matters. The first metric is always quality. There is such a thing as good movement and bad movement, just as there is a right and wrong answer to a math problem. If good movement is being sacrificed for the sake of anything else, it’s not progress.
At Cipher Skin, we’re developing the technology to put an expert movement coach in the hands of anyone, anywhere, at an affordable price. Our goal is to make full-body movement quality just as easy to measure and adjust as counting reps, steps and weight is today.