Once you get properly into working out you will get trapped in over-optimization. You will research hour after hour to find that extra little secret to the chiseled sixpack, the extra tenths on your 5 km run or the last 5 kg to your squat.
You will be spoon-fed with articles, videos and podcasts promising how you can learn from elite athletes to gain that extra little advantage. And we all hungrily swallow it raw because we all need that little extra optimization – do we not?
If we assume that we are all elite athletes competing like our life depended on it – then yes – that is probably the direction we should be looking. But for the majority that are not, the gaze should be pointed in the opposite direction.
The thing is that a lot of us starts working out with some loosely defined goal in mind; look good naked, be strong, lose weight, run 5 km or whatever it might be. Some of them can be reached, some of them will keep you in perpetual motion and some may lead you astray, but somewhere down the line you may also recognize that working out to an extent is good for you. And done the right way, actually helps keep you healthy.
And let’s not kid ourselves; elite sport is not healthy! Adopting mantras and habits from soldiers literally fighting for their life is – shock horror – not healthy. They may motivate you. Give you a good kick in the rear. But adopting their mantra wholesale will lead to fanaticism and unhealthy habits.
I am not saying that there is nothing to learn from either elite sports or the military, because there sure is. But we should always be skeptics and measure the advice up against our own goals and circumstances.
What works for an elite swimmer leading up to the Olympics won’t work for someone who swims every other Sunday. The elite swimmer has been conditioned through years and years of well-planned conditioning to get to a point where even the training itself makes sense and can act as an "enhancer" instead of "detractor". Using the same methods on someone who has not been through the same years of preparation and conditioning will not only not give the same results it will actually be harmful.
Elite sports and military training/operation is highly specialized. Years upon years are spent on specialization, conditioning the individual to cope with the stress of that specific position or role. There is this famous saying:
> Specialization is for insects
Which would be a lot less punchy if adding "and elite sports and military operations" to the end. But it does bear a lot of truth.
In general fitness and well being specialization is unnecessary and unwanted. Time spent on specialization could be better invested in general fitness. Not even touching on the argument on what to specialize in.
The original mantra of Crossfit even ran somewhat along these lines. It was the goal to be ready for anything at any time. Be put in front of any physical challenge and be able to do fairly well. That Crossfit has since become a vehicle for excessive suffering is unfortunate. The thought was there.
As normal people we have normal lives. Our main goal or main income does not stem from our workouts or training. We have regular day jobs, family, friends, maybe even other interests in our lives apart from training.
What most of us are looking for is not a way to spend more time training. We actually want to spend the least amount of time required to get the results we are after. If 10 minutes less gives 90% of the results the we are more likely to choose that option than going for an extra 10% with 10 minutes of extra work.
Minimal Viable Workout
It is actually a term borrowed and modified from the startup/product development world, where the term "Minimal Viable Product" or MVP is thrown around a lot. It was coined as a counterweight to the "normal" way of starting businesses during the dotcom-period, where an idea was presented to investors, money would be given and then the company would spend years building and refining a product. Only then to find out at launch, that this is not what the market wanted at all, or perhaps it once wanted but now had moved on.
To counter this "Minimal Viable Product" was born. Where instead of trying to build the perfect product you only build the minimum required to validate your idea. Then it got pushed to customers and based on the feedback the product could be further developed, pivoted in another direction or buried. Hence a lot less risk involved.
Applying this concept to workouts follows the same mantra. We are not trying to build or construct the perfect workout, investing a lot of time in both research and execution. We are only trying to do enough to actually claim the benefits that we want.
The pandemic has brought a lot destruction and negative consequences. Closing of gyms around the World is by no means at the top of those. But nevertheless it is a tangible change for a lot of people.
Having now been without a gym for 4-5 months I can actually look back and say that is has brought a lot of positive impact as well. For a lot of years 3 days a week I got as quickly home from work as possible, put my gym clothes on and sprang out the door to get to the gym as quickly as possible. This in order to get there before it got too full and to avoid having to wait in line for the right equipment to be available.
With gyms closed and my workouts consisting of either throwing around my own kettlebells or combining pullups and dips with hill sprints in the park I suddenly don’t have any rush at all. I can do it whenever I fancy.
And most importantly to return to the title of this blog post I have actually realized that I can almost keep the exact same look and shape as I could before with a lot less equipment and a lot less time involved.
Over the past couple of years I have somewhat regularly tried to cut away any excess exercises leaving me only with heavy basic exercises. Even then trying to cut back on the volume to see how little dose is actually required to give a response. And I have actually been surprised at how little I can get away with without seeing any negative consequences.
This point has only been further cemented by the pandemic and the forced consequences of having to get by with a lot less equipment. It has really opened my eyes to how much I have bought in wholesale on the point of always adding more and more. Always trying to gain that little extra edge. But at what cost and with which goal in mind?
So if you somehow made it this far, try to approach your workouts from a reductionist standpoint. Seeing what you can remove instead of what you can add. As some very famous sculptor said:
> Perfection is not when there is nothing more to add. Perfection is when there is nothing left to remove.