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In Praise of Technique

Technique is the grammar of movement, the hygiene of human kinetics. In the first metaphor, grammar, we begin to see why perfect technique is rarely sought by the majority of general gymgoers: who wants to be a “grammar Nazi”, a “technique fascist”? Who would identify themselves as such? Few indeed. In the second metaphor, technique as hygiene, we see a better pitch: clean up your technique; avoid the maladies that stem from not sanitizing your movements; prevent harm and injury with proper form. But neither metaphor is ideal – for a better one, you regrettably must wait until the end. To praise technique and thereby recruit you into the ranks of technique-driven lifters, I will start with a little story about epiphanies.

Let me begin with one of those all-too-catchy divisions of different types of people in this world. I'd say there are three types of lifters: those who have already had The Epiphany, those who will one day have The Epiphany, and those who will never have The Epiphany. If I’m not talking about some scam product like The Secret, then what am I on about here?

I’ve heard the story from lifters, time and time again, when a certain deep realization forever alters their whole lifting worldview. Up until this point, they’ve been focused on getting stronger and building muscle. They’ve been running on cruise control. Everything seems swell. But then a bolt of lightening strikes them--they suddenly realize their technique has been, up until this point, completely awful--either in specific lifts or in general. What sparked this epiphany? Sometimes, it’s an intervention--a friendly tip from another lifter suddenly crumbles their technical confidence, which was actually overconfidence. Sometimes, it’s a new coach’s honest assessment: we need to fix this so you can perform better. And sometimes, it’s the first time a lifter see a video of themselves lifting--giving them a weird out-of-body experience as they see themselves making the mistakes they’ve only previously spotted other gymgoers making. 

These kinds of epiphanies, depending on how they emerge, can be rough emotionally. But then, wonderful things start to happen: a new humility. A deep curiosity about technique. A retreat from "ego lifting". And ultimately, a new optimism: if I’m already this strong with awful technique, just imagine how much more I’ll be able to lift when the technique is dialed in! The epiphany is a great big forest fire, leveling everything but clearing the ground for new growth. I speak easily about this, because of course, it happened to me. A stranger (who would become my good friend) burned down everything I knew about technique, and then helped me build it back up again. 

After my friend’s assessment and striving for various improvements, I know that my technique is objectively bad-to-average (measured against videos of competitive lifters) which is infinitely more useful information than feeling like it’s subjectively good-to-great (measured against local gymgoers). This of course depends on the lifts in question, context, goals, and so on--but the whole point of this article is to resist (in fancy philosophical terms) relativism, subjectivism, and solipsism about lifting. At some point, lifters need to leave their own shelters and learn what peers and coaches think.

People who are initially overconfident yet terrible with their lifting technique are a mindblowingly good example of the Dunning–Kruger effect, which posits that people with low ability overestimate their skill; roughly speaking, the worse you are at something, the worse you are at understanding precisely how bad you are at it. I warn you that you might start seeing the Dunning-Kruger effect everywhere in life once you grasp it. And in the gym, you’ll have thousands of data points to begin mulling it over.

In the context of other athletic feats, an article in praise of technique would seem weird: of course technique is crucial, coaches and athletes would say. There’s no Biles or Phelps without it. But an unholy alliance of fitness media, participants in fitness culture, and their over-certified yet overly-ignorant trainers has produced a situation where awful technique is standard and merely good technique looks exceptional. You may rightly point out that I’ve been comparing athletics to fitness. In fitness you’re supposedly concerned with gains, health, and so on, so technique is merely a means to an end. But even though most people are at least dimly aware that technique is a useful means, by appealing to the worse elements of fitness culture--vanity, scientific and athletic ignorance, impatience, and so on--we’ve collectively thrown technique under the bus. However, as far as arguments go, proving that technique is useful is easy--I’m going to argue something harder. Not only is technique a profoundly important means to an end, it is noble end in itself. And, if we squint our eyes, we can see a striking resemblance between the idea of lifting technique today and one of the most important terms from Greek philosophy, techne (τέχνη). Techne not only gives us words like technical and technology, but sparks some enormous debates about skill, craft, and gadgetry--in a vast array of different contexts--that span 2400 years and culminate in a modern obsession with the goods and evils of technology. 

I bet you're picturing Greek philosophers as sedentary thinkers who sit on rocks as they stew over this techne business. Yet Plato was probably a pankratist. He wasn't a lifter per se (but if it helps, picture him as medium jacked, occasionally throwing around some of these between his rounds as an "ancient MMA fighter"). Indeed his name connotes broadness in Greek (πλατύς). Perhaps we should call him Wide-oh or Thickie. Anyway, here’s a sampling what he classified as techne (let’s call them true technique-driven arts): medicine, horsemanship, hunting, farming, geometry, generalship, piloting a ship, chariot-driving, political craft, lyre-playing, flute-playing, painting, sculpture, housebuilding, shipbuilding, carpentry, weaving, and pottery. However, not every activity was a true art for Plato; he argued that rhetoric, the art of persuasion, was not techne and therefore rhetoricians were full of shit (an extreme paraphrase). For the purposes of the gym, it suffices to say that lifting technique and technical coaching is definitely techne by comparison to the examples Plato gives; it does not fall into the pseudo-legit bullshit disciplines. If you accept a distinction between authentic and inauthentic disciplines (eg. cosmology versus astrology, western medicine vs. crystal-healing "oncologists") then lifting evidently falls on the side of the true. Plato was keen to divide such things up, and he aligns philosophy and gymnastics (the true love of wisdom and the training of the body) against sophistry and cosmetics (deceptive wisdom and skin-deep beautification). Is there a wisdom of lifting? The first western text on athletics, by Philostratus, actually argues something more radical than what I've advanced here: gymnastics is a form of sophia, of wisdom.  Today, is lifting a form of wisdom? I dunno, I've met some pretty strong and foolish lifters. But lifting is definitely a techne, a veritable art that I think Plato would recognize as such. Are your muscles actually strong and real? Or are you weak and filled with synthol? These are the questions a powerlifting Plato would ask today.

Yet the popular conception of what lifters do, and the typical relationship of new lifters to technique, pretends that somehow lifting is not a true art, skill, craft, or techne. If your task was to build and strengthen a boat, would you trivialize the techne of shipbuilding as you started experimenting and crafted three leaky prototypes? Probably not. Then if your task was to build and strengthen your body, why would you trivialize the techne of lifting? Why dismiss this artform, skill, craft? This widespread dismissiveness goes hand in hand with people’s overconfidence in their own technique. 

Determining all the causes of technical overconfidence in the gym is difficult, but one of the most striking factors is gender (confusing root causes and contributing factors is bad philosophy). Men are taught that lifting weights is their “natural” domain (a nasty appeal to nature), and that they are naturally stronger than women. Thus some men, despite their profound ignorance of technique and relatively poor lifts, assume they will be able to coach any woman – even if she’s relatively stronger, more technically proficient, and better in every athletic capacity than he is. For instance, a concrete example. Let’s say a certain 200 pound man has maximum squat of 225. He approaches a 120 pound woman with a maximum squat of 205. Though every powerlifter knows that this hypothetical woman here is vastly more accomplished than the man, and probably worked five times as hard to achieve the technique and training hours required for squatting 1.7 times her bodyweight, he might feel entitled to give her his “one weird trick” to squat more. Hopefully this was a civil interaction since it happened in a gym in real life; on the internet (youtube comments, *shudder*) these kinds of armchair experts are often rude and generally despicable.

Once you start noting this pattern of “coaching” in the gym, you cannot unsee it. It goes without saying that coaching needs to be based on accomplishment and expertise, and this all-too-common pattern features neither. What results is a nasty cycle: overconfident men teach shitty technique to women, resulting in fewer quality role models for either gender, and this lowers everyone's lifting aptitude. This is especially perverse since because women typically accumulate fewer range-of-motion limiting injuries and imbalances, and are culturally encouraged to be flexible (eg. yoga), meaning that it may take less coaching and preparation for women to achieve wonderful technique. The ethical responsibility of teaching good technique goes with an ethical responsibility of not teaching bad technique. Though the gender ratio in the serious pursuit of strength is improving, the current imbalance means the greater ethical burden of improving gym culture is on men. When masculinity is threatened men tend to exaggerate masculine attributes; in the gym this may amount to men ego-lifting more in the presence of women. Unfortunately, this is yet another route by which technique is compromised. When men "show off" for women in the gym, they hypocritically reveal increasingly shitty technique as they throw weight on the bar. 

Hypothetically speaking, maybe there's a bigger, bolder reason people don't care about technique: a Decline and Fall of The Lifting Empire. Historians of any discipline typically obsess over the question of decadence or decay: is the discipline crumbling, and if so, then why? This question is analogous to the Roman Empire. But in the context of fitness, this question of decline is ridiculously complicated. If technique was once the domain of elite athletes or dedicated lifters in the pre-Arnold era, and then lifting was popularized and distributed in the growing gyms of North America, then by virtue of its very accessibly we'd expect the average skill level to decline. And, if fitness for the masses is deemed a priority, than that's not a bad thing. The elites can stay elite as their discipline grows via rookies.  For instance, I'm certain that the prevalence of digital cameras and then cell phone cameras caused the aesthetic and technical quality of the average photograph to plummet from the film photography era. But I'm happy with that: who am I to deny them their photography? Likewise in lifting, reducing the barriers for entry is a good thing. However, and this is a big HOWEVER, popularizing lifting doesn't necessarily mean that the average person's technique must regress. Things could have been different. 

There's an alternate universe out there that diverged from our own reality around WWII. In this fitnesstopia, in the decades following WWII when bodybuilding began to surge, North America somehow overcame its desire to commercialize and capitalize on every goddamn area of life it could, and somehow spared the world of fitness. Somehow, when you turned on the TV in the 80s, there were no infomercials for scam fitness products. There were no gyms in the 90s whose business model involves ensuring that people sign up for the gym but never actually attend. There were no chains in the 00s like Planet Fitness which specifically forbid people from pursuing excellence. There were no trainers who enrich some certification company by paying $500 for a worthless certificate and promptly pollute dozens of clients with terrible training practices and techniques. There were no "lifestyle brands" that allow people to flaunt fitness without fitness. There were no scammy instagram accounts. There was no hyper-litigious CrossFit HQ. Maybe something kinda resembling crossfit as a practice was flourishing, but there was no trademark on any form of fitness.  

So, what was happening in this alternative universe? Well, basically, fitness was socialized instead of privatized. The enormous health and economic benefits of a fit population were realized and public policy was adjusted accordingly. Gyms resembled public parks and public schools more than private businesses; indeed gyms, parks, and schools were sometimes one and the same. Billions of dollars were relocated into proactive rather than reactive medical practices. Exercise was medicine. Since people were lifting and running around, sports medicine doctors saw a bit more traffic, but GPs dealt with fewer diseases of civilization. And, because a little lifting was as compulsory as learning French in Ontario, people, on average, didn't suck at it. Yes indeed, this is a fantastical alternative universe that is ripe for criticism. But my point is that the largest spheres of social life -- public policy, economics, the battle between privatization and socialization -- directly or indirectly reach the level of technique -- the concrete instance of why Jane Doe is paying some "Certified Trainer" named Chad $60 an hour to assure her to not squat below parallel because it's "bad for her knees" despite the fact that he himself has never squatted correctly and was never even taught to squat correctly because he was certified over the internet by a faceless conglomerate of greed, indifference, and mediocrity. Maybe, just maybe, she could have bypassed this whole alienating process of being told what her body must not do and strolled over to a public park, picked up an Atlas stone a dozen times, and went home, knowing that her tax dollars helped pay for the $4.33 of concrete required to pop it out of a mold. With this fantasy I conclude the most speculative part of my argument.

So, back to my main theme: there is no single answer to this issue of technical overconfidence, dismissiveness, and ineptitude. Gender is a factor; the Dunning–Kruger effect is also at work; maybe there’s also a societal decline in values of athletic excellence; maybe this decline is twin to a rise in a quick-fix mentality (throw technique under the bus since we’re told we need to get fit, lean, and jacked now). Privatized fitness certainly did its damage. Multiple causes are clearly converging. We tend to think that technique belongs to individuals, but the rise and fall of technique is clearly a broad sociological issue. Individuals must work hard to fix it, but they did not all individually and independently decide to start sucking at lifting. The collective nature of these issues is why gym culture must be studied in addition to the usual "case study" approach that focuses on individual performance and psychology.

While the fundamental causal answers are beyond this discussion, their exact number and nature, it does make pratical sense to learn from the success of people who never suffered from technical overconfidence. In the beginning, I said there were three types of lifters: those who already had an epiphany their technique sucks, those who will one day have this epiphany, and those who never will. However, there is one meaningful category of athletes who are an exception: people who have received honest coaching from Day 1, which means no epiphany is even required, because their coach kept them humble. Unless you started in a sport like weightlifting, which demands more coaching than strength sports like powerlifting, this honest assessment can be surprisingly rare. Yet this is why community is so important for lifters: without a coach, a group of peers is the next-best-thing and will keep you grounded in reality (especially if you humbly solicit feedback).

Going truly solo is hard – really hard. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your own technique requires an elusive objectivity about yourself. However, an excellent and little-discussed way to build the analytical tools for assessing your own technique is watching other people (studying youtube or instagram videos, your gym friends, and strangers – in a noncreepy way). Analogies will help. How could you possibly get better at playing guitar if you didn’t understand which guitarists were awesome, what the intricacies of their technique were, and how you could copy or reject their different quirks? How could you possibly write great literature if Dan Brown represents your pinnacle of the novelistic form and the state of the art of writing? Yes, any technique you develop must work for you and your own body. But let’s not slip into solipsism, where you think you’re the only person that matters as you learn and appreciate technique. Get out there and study the whole range from the very best to very worst – emulate the best, reject and learn from the rest. No lifter is an island. There’s already someone out there with your exact body type who has already perfected the biomechanics of whatever you’re trying to achieve. 

What does “progress” even mean in the gym? Though it means many different things to many different people, technical progress is rarely what comes to mind (more often, we think of "progress pics"). Fitness culture is manically obsessed with “progressively” quantifying itself – weight on the bar, weight on the scale, grams of protein per meal, and so on. Quantifying each 5 pound PR you achieve is fantastic when you’re following the principle of progressive overload. However, we have yet to discover a meaningful way of quantifying “technique gains”. Perhaps another factor in today’s epidemic of technical mediocrity is that lifting culture is inherently more quantitative than qualitative, and technique resists quantification. In the sports of weightlifting and powerlifting, you can earn 1-3 red lights for screwing it up. But this is the coarsest of measures. Until someone comes up with awesome metrics for technical progress, we’re going to have to accept humbly, assess ourselves, and consult our peers and coaches. There are awesome tools that can help assess technique (barspeed trackers and apps like barsense) but these cannot replace true coaching and self-coaching in the most noble and neglected art of technique. 

If the heroes in the lifelong saga of technical improvement are humility and honesty and critical reflection, then we should not forget about the villains. This malevolent, motley crew is made up of our own egos, dishonest praise, poor quality resources for technique, and a culture of technical ignorance that gymgoers collectively inherit without bearing much blame as individuals. This culture is often sexist and shitty to beginners. The first step in fixing this is realizing the limitations of own technique, so we can build it up from an honest starting point. And when we finally achieve good – or even great – technique for ourselves, our next step shouldn’t be to brag about it. Rather, it should be to offer friendly assistance to others so that they too experience the most humbling gains of all – the gains of technique, of course. These days, most people go the gym alone, awash in their earbud soundtracks. Fitness is rarely a "team sport". Nor are the sports of powerlifting, weightlifting, strong(wo)man and bodybuilding based on collective action. But having read a hundred stories of influential mentors, and having experienced a hundred helpful interactions with other people, I am convinced that opening oneself up to external, perhaps communal, feedback is crucial for fixing this technique crisis. 

I began with two imperfect metaphors: technique as the grammar of movement and the hygiene of movement. I conclude with a better one: technique is the eloquence of movement. Eloquence is about style and artfulness, yet it is also about effectiveness and persuasiveness. Eloquent speakers of English have a command of our language; eloquent lifters have a command of movement. They lift effectively; they persuade the weight to move along the most felicitous path. And as it turns out, this is often the most beautiful path: form and function in technique are often one and the same. To move eloquently is to have great technique. For the ancients, eloquent speech was of the highest value –- eloquent orators and mighty athletes were often revered in equal measure. In our politics and our lifting today, we tend not to care about eloquence anymore: the average person hungers not for artful speech and movement, but simply more, more, more –- more quotable soundbites, more plates on the bar, more clips to post on TV and on Instagram. Whether in society at large or the confines of the gym, we are addicted to spectacle. But these are spectacles of size and quantity: heavier bodybuilders who sacrifice aesthetics for size, more egotistical lifters who sacrifice technique to throw more weight on the bar. Ultimately, the mantras “more is more” and “more is better” get confused. We need to realize that in the gym, only better is better. 

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Philosophies of Strength: an unrealistic, unachievable introduction

What is strength? Perhaps surprisingly, I don’t care about its essence. Yet I’m fascinated by the ways in which ‘strength’ (forceKratos, dunamis, pouvoir, puissance, Stärke, etc.) has been deployed thousands of times by famous and forgettable people to ends that are good, evil, and a whole lot of in-between. Western cultures of fitness, athletics, and bodies enjoy drawing up real or imagined pedigrees and lineages that connect us to Roman and Greek societies. In between, there is a labyrinth in time and space of mythologies, medical texts, training manuals, philosophical debates, folklore, fitness contraptions, means of oppression and liberation, obscure sports, political revolutions, sexual politics, warfare, and a dozen other categories that have great bearing on strength (muscular, moral, mental, and more). And of course, investigating strength means investigating its (multiple? near?) opposites such as weakness, frailty, and vulnerability. Like most readers, I'm interested in the most practical side of pursing strength--but without interrogating this goal, we run the risk of moral, psychological, and societal wipeouts. At the very least, we need philosophical clips to put on these practical plates. 

Am I qualified to guide you through this enormous history, regaling you with a sweeping armchair account based on decades of scholarly erudition and confident generalizations? A fireside fitness chat of epic proportions? Absolutely not; not even close. I'm not a philosopher (and yet, somehow worse at soccer than they are). This is a new area for me: my method for this blog will be profoundly anecdotal. But a great anecdote is nothing to trifle with. Through my constellation of anecdotes, each appearing one by one, I hope to draw sketchy shapes in the skies of strength. We will thus hopefully discover a family resemblance between the many concepts that define strength, the cult(ures) of bodies, and how they move. As stated, this is an unrealistic goal in the extreme, but I need a place to start accumulating anecdotes and juicy quotes, and that place is here.

Here are some ideas that could become blog topics:

  • The raddest and baddest feats of strength and athleticism from mythology (the swift Atalanta vs the more familiar Hercules)
  • The philosophical defense of (vain?) bodybuilding in the novel Bench Press 
  • Strength and the doctrine of “might is right” (political philosophy)
  • The “Protestant Ethic” in fitness culture (sociologist Max Weber)
  • Instrumental rationality in powerlifting, bodybuilding, and beyond (again Weber)
  • The ridiculous gymrat hyper-masculinity in Mark Leyner's novels and his other absurdist writings
  • The conflicts between (biological) sex and (cultural) gender as revealed by bodybuilding and steroid usages (re Janae Kroc)
  • America=bodybuilding, fitness=capitalism, crossfit=neoliberalism, and other dubious but intriguing equations
  • What are the politics of fitness culture? Progressive, regressive, digressive, aggressive? Or is this too broad to even answer?
  • The rhetoric of fitness culture: how are we persuaded to move? 
  • Why is the modern fitness industry (generally) awful and insipid? Is it just bad, exploitative business, or are their deep cultural reasons?
  • What does French philosopher Jean Baudrillard have against cardio and bodybuilding machines?
  • Why is Hermes so thick (tho)? On gluteal culture. 

I’ve given you a rough domain of where strength is found and contested in letters. So what do I mean by Philosophies Of [Strength]? I roughly mean, in the original Greek sense, what are the meaningful questions and forms of wisdom regarding strength? I’m using philosophy in a broad but not all-encompassing sense. When companies speak of their “corporate philosophy” or “brand philosophy”, they really just mean their mantra and worldview. That’s relentless marketing, not the relentless questioning that’s part of almost all philosophical traditions. Maybe Western philosophy is a product of these mostly stuffy mostly white mostly dead mostly dudes, maybe it can be a lived (and lifting) experience, but philosophy ain’t in no bottle available at http://www.philosophy.com. After I finish gagging from the name of this company (and then applying its new & exciting product called uplifting miracle worker to my freshly-wrinkled face) do let me know which topics might interest you most so I can focus on them.

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