If you are willing to be honest about your training and/or your life, you can probably come up with some things that you should be doing, but aren’t–either because you’re ignoring it on purpose or they have conveniently slipped your mind.
Maybe you aren’t doing squats. Maybe you never stretch. Maybe you’re too sarcastic. Maybe you’re too nice. Maybe you eat 100 pizzas every day and tell yourself that your 135 pound bench press is all the street cred anyone will ever need from you.
If you are in the tiny percentage that doesn’t have any gaps to fill in, congratulations—I hope to join your club someday. For now, I know there are at least two things missing from my own program, and at times from my own life:
Elegance and mastery
Dan John suggests that the big picture goal of any strength program should be elegance and mastery. Think about what each of these words mean to you before reading farther. Seriously.
Elegant I am not, that is certain. Once as a teenager I stayed home alone for two week to work while my family took a vacation. The night before they returned, I realized the house was messy. I called a girl I was hot for and asked her to come help me clean up. When she showed up, I realized that my “mess” was actually a catastrophic indictment of my manners and standards of living–she refused to help after she found a pair of dirty boxer briefs on top of the TV, with a pile of chicken bones inside of them. I don’t know how that happened.
What images does the word elegance bring to mind? Miss America? Tea parties? Lace? Pride and Prejudice? Proper young ladies walking around with books on their head? It probably brings anything to mind that does not resemble a heavy deadlift or ten minutes of kettlebell snatches.
A definition of elegance
–displaying effortless beauty and simplicity in movement or execution; also, unusually effective and simple (From Princeton Wordnet)
So it can mean beauty and it can mean effective, meaning effective for a particular task. So on one hand you have the lovely swan. On the other hand, I suppose you could consider a kick in the groin an “elegant” tactic for repelling an assailant.
The definition may change based on your ideas about beauty and the goals you’ve set for your training and personal development. Please don’t write to me and tell me you’ve finally kicked so many groins that you are changing your name to Dr. Elegance.
No elegance without mastery
Add enough elegance and soon you’ll be master of the whole universe:
Dan spoke of Dr. Mark Cheng (a brilliant RKC instructor) performing a high-bridge Turkish Get Up with a Russian kettlebell as beautiful. Why? Because he could do it perfectly and (seemingly) effortlessly.
After introducing us to a horrific plank series called the “starfish plank,” he said that watching 100 high school kids all doing the starfish plank in silence is beautiful.
It takes mastery to demonstrate elegance. You cannot perform a lift, movement, dance, or much of anything else effortlessly without mastering it. Average efforts are not elegant. Middle-of-the-road performance is not masterful.
You can’t have one without the other and if you aren’t striving for elegance and mastery in your strength programs, you’re not going to get as far as you want.
No reasons to doubt
I spent much of the last 48 hours listening to Dan lecture on training, nutrition, philosophy, and his own brilliance. The more he talked, the more I believed the things he said. The more hands on work we did, the better I saw my body starting to move–and all within minutes. I’ve never been able to get my arms overhead into the position for an overhead squat. Dan got me into that position in about 15 seconds just by tweaking a couple of small things and using a piece of PVC pipe.
Suddenly my body was moving properly in this one way–it felt…maybe elegant still isn’t quite the word, but I haven’t mastered the movement. Taking a step towards mastery felt wonderful, as all worthwhile progress will.
No reasons to shoot small or over complicate
Why commit to something like gaining strength–a pursuit which should last a lifetime, not a 16 week mass gaining cycle–and shoot small? If you want to deadlift double bodyweight, make that the goal, then strive for elegance and mastery. That means, at minimum:
- Perfect your form
- Perfect your nutrition habits
- Learn all you can about the deadlift
- Learn from those who have achieved what you want
In other words, don’t commit to deadlifting 500 pounds and then pursue activities that don’t advance the cause of elegance and mastery of the deadlift. It will never look effortless, but it can look perfect. It can be mastered.
Don’t commit to snatching a kettlebell 100 times in a row and then start a Mega Bench Cycle. Snatch a kettlebell. Lots. Commit to mastering it and then do what you know you should.
Shooting for elegance and mastery is the perfect model of simplification. You can’t master anything without a ton of tiny, smart steps and a whole lot of discipline. If we have the correct goals and enjoy the journey, even you and me could do something elegant–that’s hard for me to picture, but I believe it will happen.
A few closing thoughts
- Pick a goal with eventual mastery in mind
- Mozart never made the goal of writing a few catchy tunes
- Progress is beautiful – watch Kalos Sthenos and this is undeniable
- It’s fun to see anyone do something they have mastered
- Focus is beautiful
- Simplicity is elegance
- The next PR should be highly valued as a step on the way to mastery
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