It’s been said that life, at it’s most basic and physical, is motion. From the excitation of atoms at the molecular level to the interaction of people at a party, something that “lives” must necessarily be moving, growing, or changing. Proof? Nowhere in the world does a purely static organism exist. Every living cell is in a constant state of flux and flow: splitting, swelling, constricting, and moving according to the demands of its environment. Observe a stone on the beach and you see none of this, only the weather beaten stillness of an object waiting to be moved. Stillness, it turns out, is the harbinger of death. Stillness, is anti-life.
The obvious implication of this truth is that there’s nothing life-giving about a sedentary lifestyle. You remain at rest long enough and that’s where you’re going to inevitably stay. But this is hardly a revelation—few will argue that their liveliest or fittest days were spent sitting on a couch somewhere.
More often discussed are the negative effects of a stagnant methodology, and for good reason. Simply because we are moving one foot in front of the other on the treadmill or lifting barbells in the gym, doesn’t mean we are free from stillness. Sure we are in motion literally, but any hamster on his wheel can say the same. The truth is that, as creatures of habit, we saturate ourselves with protocols and techniques that we like/are comfortable with and are hesitant to change them. This, too, is stillness.
While consistency is crucial to development, the laws of adaptation state that without adjustment every technique becomes ineffective. No matter how intelligent, cutting edge, or initially ass-kicking, every program has a flaw... Us. We have to understand that our bodies are hard-wired to survive, not to excel. Improvement in strength, conditioning, or balance happens because we’ve asked more of our bodies than they can currently handle. Our adaptation to these demands is merely an adjustment in bandwidth; a growth in capacity such that we can re-establish homeostasis. To continue evolving and improving we must therefore be willing to adjust everything.
In general, the CrossFit community is GREAT at this. It’s a nexus of ex-specialists and aspiring generalists, all comfortable and confident enough to seek help and share experiences. Where else do Olympic rowers and high school gymnasts have anything to offer one another? And because of the multitude of skills and capacities encouraged by this methodology, there’s always something new to learn. Few athletes should plateau for long, if at all.
Why then do so many still hit the proverbial wall? How can members at so many boxes be lamenting their battles with “burnout” if every element of variation is being programmed into their WODs? Worse, why do some continue to feel unsatisfied even while they’re hitting PR’s and setting records?
My opinion? Most have been chasing the same goal for too long. They're psychologically "still."
The vast majority of people enter the gym with a dominant psychological focus, even if they choose not to wear it on their sleeve. Most either want an aesthetic change (to be bigger, smaller, or leaner), or a performance change (to be faster, more conditioned, or stronger). Even at our most varied and successful, it’s difficult for us to let go of these dominant foci. Just ask a bodybuilder if his body is ever big enough, a sprinter if he’s ever fast enough, or a Crossfitter if he’s ever fit enough. If they’re worth their salt the answer will always be no. And that’s okay—we need to be hungry in order to motivate ourselves. But at a certain point all of the above examples will find their appetite waning, their workouts lacking, and their goals slipping further away.
If we can’t wrench our attention away from our original, dominant focus even for a second, our mindset is essentially motionless, and even the most varied and intelligent programming cannot overcome psychological stagnation. If the mind isn’t excited about doing something, it won’t get done. Or if it does, it won’t get done well—and this is the more crucial point. Just as our body needs motion to stay lively, so does our psyche need fresh goals to stay alert and engaged.
Think of it this way: To permanently pursue a single focus would require a permanently peaked interest, which is impossible—interest naturally deteriorates with familiarity. Without interest, we grow bored. When we’re bored, our resolve weakens. When our resolve is weak, we resent ourselves and the goals we’ve chosen. When we resent our goals we lose interest in them, feeding the snake it’s tail, as it were. Boom, WALL.
The challenge then becomes staying psychologically mobile and avoiding the temptation of a single, all-consuming purpose. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a main, over-arching goal, just that you need to give your mind a break from it every so often. To bring the example home, consider our sport. Most, if not all Crossfitters identify and target their weaknesses. Be it strength, conditioning, short WODs, long WODs, gymnastics, Olympic lifting… everybody has one, or ten. Whatever it is, our natural inclination is to seek it out and beat it into submission. I’ve seen people spend hours trying to master double unders—breaking ropes, kicking walls, spitting epithets. Day after day after day. Most times getting worse instead of better, purely because their brain is so tired of doing fucking double unders that it’s no longer registering the small deviations it needs to be successful. This is NOT the most efficient way to improve. More isn’t always more.
A simple solution for this is to pursue the acquisition of new skills. Focus your time and energy on learning something you know very little about for a change. There are a million variations on exercises using kettlebells. Most of us only know the swing. There are a hundred techniques to master on the rings, yet most of us stop at dips and muscle ups. Why not explore the bodyweight techniques that Parkour athletes use to strengthen themselves instead of doing another WOD with pullups and/or handstand pushups? Any one of these distractions will give your brain a much needed break from whatever aesthetic or performance goal it is that dominates your focus. Then, after a few weeks have past, come back to your main goal and refocus on it with a fresh head. I guarantee you will enjoy tackling it far more.
For me personally, my obsession is progress. I need to feel like I’m moving forward. In the absence of competition this is easy to achieve because there is no set timeframe in which the progress must be made. But when there are dates and deadlines things get a little more intense. I quickly discovered that training for CrossFit competitions was mentally exhausting, far beyond what I wanted or expected it to be. It became very easy for me to obsess over training, ferreting out weaknesses while trying to get stronger and more conditioned all the while. In the past I’ve found myself dreading sessions, losing motivation, and ultimately underperforming when I should’ve been crushing it. This was not okay.
The solution for me was to split my focus between training for performance and training for experience. Instead of focusing harder on progressing my strength, conditioning, and skill level, I focused less, designing certain WODs more for their location and feel than for their weights and distances. To be clear, these workouts were never wholly unrelated to my overall goals (they still meet criteria for intensity, duration, etc), but they feel like a vacation from the pressure of benchmarks and totals. In a way, my training has become a challenge not just to improve physically, but to do workouts that are literally unforgettable. I can honestly say that this has made a huge difference in my ability to stay connected in what has become a year-round CrossFit season.
No matter how focused and dedicated, no one can afford to be still for long. Grooves become ruts, that’s just the way it is. Fitness isn’t merely one foot in front of the other, it’s a constantly varied, multi-functional freestyle waltz that we must always re-imagine. If you can discover ways to adjust your methodologies and entertain new pursuits, you’ll find yourself establishing a foundation for improvement that will never burnout.