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New Age terminology and catch-phrases of the week grate on my nerves. When I hear people talking about their "Inner Child" or trainers proselytizing about "Functional Training," I unconsciously clench my teeth. The terms may have value, but they tend to be overused and underdeveloped and become fall-back phrases that people rely on all too easily.
Over the last several years, "The Box" has been a focus of attention; whether you're living inside of it and trying to get out of it, or trying not to think in a way that resides within it. Its usage has declined a bit recently, the term having fallen a bit out of vogue, but I still hear people talking about it and it drives me crazy because "The Box" isn't a bad thing. "The Box" is good. In fact, "The Box" is necessary. Let me explain.
In spite of my impatience with the term, I understand and appreciate the context behind the phrase. The meaning, originally, was valid—to encourage people to expand beyond perceived limits, unleash creative thinking, to be unconventional and daring, to risk and be unique. But the perpetual focus on those pursuits increasingly drove people to strive so hard to be unique that the sublime became the ridiculous.
The limits were being pushed further and further, and the ideas became more and more outrageous until anything resembling traditional thinking was considered archaic, outdated and useless. This was evident especially in the fitness field, where it has become common practice for ridiculous workouts to be considered the best. Fitness experts were concerned about this phenomenon years ago when the term Functional Training first came out because trainers started taking the notion of balance and stabilization and combining them with the increasing number of fitness products out there to design absurd training methods.
Do you really need to be able to do a single leg squat on a BOSU while simultaneously doing a diagonal medicine ball chop? No, you don't. But the problem is that trainers began hijacking what was originally a valid concept and layering more and more absurdity on top of it until the term lost its meaning. And to compound the problem, the ridiculous workouts were hard, which made people think they were good. Of course it's hard to do a single leg squat on a BOSU while simultaneiously doing a diagonal medicine ball chop, but is it necessary?
Just because it makes you sweat doesn't make the workout credible. Functional Training originally referred to the notion of doing movement patterns in the gym that replicated real-world movements so that you could become proficient at these movements and avoid risk out there in a three-dimensional world. But unless you're a hockey player, I can't see any reason to do it. It might be cool looking, it might be difficult, but is it really functional?
So, while the notion of expanding your training (and your life?) outside of "The Box" was originally a good concept, it's time for us to put that concept in the drawer and get back into the box for a while. That's right, people, you've gone too far, and it's time to rein it back in.
What is "The Box," anyway? Did anyone take the time to define what we were trying to escape? Theoretically, The Box respresents our limitations, our self-imposed boundaries, playing it safe. But The Box, if it even exists, is not only a good thing, it's a necessary thing. Hear me out.
Inside "The Box" are the fundamentals, the boring stuff, the bedrock upon which everything else rests, the stuff you need to do and/or know.
In business, The Box contains basic organizational skills, marketing and sales efforts, a clear and defined stated purpose or mission.
In boxing, The Box contains the basics; the jab, cross, hook and uppercut, proper punching mechanics and footwork. Today's fighters almost unanimously live outside The Box, having abandoned the jab and basic defensive skills, relying instead on lead right hands and left hooks a la Roy Jones Jr.. (Note to boxers; you're not Roy Jones, Jr., get back into The Box and learn how to throw a jab for God's sake).
In music, The Box contains scales, hand position, the basic ability to read and play notes. If you try to sit down and play like Vladimir Horowitz or Jimi Hendrix without knowing the basics, you will fail. A notable exception to this rule is Prince, who is the Roy Jones, Jr. of music. You, however, are not Prince, so don't even try.
In personal training (private training or semi-private training), The Box contains basic, primal movement patterns; squats, lunges, pushing/pulling, stepping, bending, twisting. Sure, it's possible to use TRX straps to suspend all four limbs in the open air and then do a push-up, but why would you do it? Suspension training is all the rage right now (that's practically all we saw at this year's IDEA and IHRSA fitness conventions) and some basic movements make sense, but unfortunately much of it is….stupid. You need to know how to do a garden variety squat on flat, dry land much more than you need to do a single leg lunge and reach using TRX straps or a BOSU.
I know for certain you'll be getting up and down out of a chair at some point today, probably many times, but I'm equally certain you won't be reaching for your dropped wallet while you have one foot caught in a rope hanging from the ceiling. You need to become proficient at basic movement patterns in order for you function reasonably well in your life, which is why the Personal Training Box exists; so that you can squat, bend, reach, push, pull and step with relative efficiency. Focus on that before you focus on doing upside down sit-ups on a trapeze.
Progressive Overload – This is the concept of placing unfamiliar stress on your body to force it to adapt, i.e., get stronger, faster, etc., and it's a scientifically validated concept. I think that, in an attempt to assist the process of progressive overload, personal trainers began to search for more and more unusual approaches that would stimulate adaptation. Okay, that's an honest objective, but progressive overload is easily achieved without all the craziness.
Pressure to be Unique and Unusual – Every trainer or fitness training studio strives to create a unique and unusual identity, to separate itself from it's competitors. Totally understandable. But simply being different isn't enough, you also have to employ sound scientific principles and make sense. After all, the group training world tried jump rope classes a while back. Sounded good. It wasn't. Also, there's this notion that the personal trainer who does a bunch of crazy, unorthodox stuff is a mad genius. Maybe. He also might be a tool.
Entertainment Value – Gyms want to cater to the need in all of us to be entertained, to be distracted away from the notion that you're actually exercising. So they come up with gimmicks and fads. (Your Honor, I would like to submit Crunch Fitness as Exhibit A!)
Balance Training and Functional Training – The importance of balance, stabilization and functional training burst onto the scene in the 90's. It is all valid, but the industry has taken these valid concepts and stretched them too thin.
Exercise ADD – Personal Trainers are children in a sandbox, playing with toys and making stuff up. It's kind of a wonderful thing, but it gets out of hand sometimes.
I'm not saying you have to give up your trapeze training, your Yogilates, Piloxing or TRX suspension training. All those things are good, they have their purposes, they have their benefits, and they can be fun. But don't forget the fundamentals. I have my misgivings about CrossFit, but I appreciate the beautiful simplicity of it and it's resultant effectiveness. Don't make the mistake of thinking that, because it's simple in concept, it's simple in application. It's not.
What I'm getting at is that you should never forsake your fundamentals; your squats, your lunges, your stepping, pressing and pulling movements, your running, hiking, swimming, biking abilities. All the fancy, tricky stuff won't do you a bit of good if you can't bend down to pick up your kid.
Jonathan Aluzas is the owner of Arena Fitness; personal training, semi private training and group fitness training facilities in Encino and Northridge, CA. For more info visit Arenafitness.com