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Your Strength Training And Your Life Must Have These Two Things

Elegance

This is not me. I am not elegant.

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:

First he was elegant, then he was the master

But first he was elegant...

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

Good luck.

Josh


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  • Ben Owens June 8, 2009, 8:57 am

    Excellent post, Josh. I had never thought of any hard lift as “elegant” or “beautiful”. Now that I think about it though, seeing someone execute a perfect deadlift, snatch (barbell or kettlebell), swing, etc., really is a pretty thing to behold. All parts moving just the way they were meant to, no wasted effort. It is a worthy thing to strive for.

  • Laree Draper June 8, 2009, 12:33 pm

    Nice, Josh, I like it!

    Very great spending some time with you this weekend. Thanks for making that happen.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 8, 2009, 1:01 pm

      I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. I miss you already:)

  • Lori Wysocki June 8, 2009, 3:31 pm

    Nice to meet you this weekend Josh and your lovely family!!!Welcome to the best group !!:-)

    • Josh Hanagarne June 8, 2009, 3:40 pm

      Thank you Lori. I think little Max is mad because we don’t have any bench chains at home for him to rattle.

  • Michelle Smith June 8, 2009, 4:34 pm

    Hey Josh, great write-up and it was a pleasure meeting you and spending some time with you. Welcome to IOL!!

    • Josh Hanagarne June 8, 2009, 4:35 pm

      Thanks Michelle. I get the feeling I’ll be talking about this for a while. I don’t know how long it’s going to take for all the brilliant things I heard to work their way through my system so I can back to training stupid and lazy.

  • Craig Brown June 8, 2009, 4:35 pm

    John- Good one. Really good to meet you this weekend! Remember, bloody shins…bloody shins…

    Drop me an email and I’ll send you some links!

    Best-

    Craig

    • Josh Hanagarne June 8, 2009, 4:38 pm

      Bloody shins….bloody shins…got it. Time to go buy me some fancy tights.

  • Al in Vancouver June 8, 2009, 5:37 pm

    Josh, Great post.

    Lucky man to have heard Dan John. I really enjoy his articles.

    Just made my slosh pipe this week. 4 inch diameter and 9 foot 8 inches (4 inches longer than the one Dan wrote about. That may have been a mistake as it is so brutal!).

    If you haven’t tried that yet I strongly recommedn that you do.

    Now I gotta get down to further goal-setting and revision. Thanks.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 8, 2009, 7:04 pm

      Thanks Al. You’re a brave man going over the recommended length for the slosh pipe. Is brave the right word? Dan made me realize that I don’t know anything and I’ve probably got another two decades before I do anything but ask questions and listen like a good boy. What goals are you working on?

  • Al in Vancouver June 8, 2009, 10:46 pm

    Slosh Pipe: Brave or stupid or…?

    My summer goals that still stand to be completed:
    5 more pounds to my 3-5 rep chinup
    10 more pounds to my squat for 5 reps
    10 more pounds to 5 RM in flat bench
    already met my push press and deadlift goals for the summer.

    My goals are probably going to be oriented towards stone lifting and maybe introductory bending goals for the rest of the summer. Not clear on this yet. Been reading Steve Jeck and Adam Glass and am in a bit of a spun out state being drawn in too many directions at once.

    Thanks for asking.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 9, 2009, 6:57 am

      I know the feeling. Once you realize how fun everything is, you’ve got to try it all. I tried tabata last night for the first time and nearly died. That was a real eye opener.

  • Adam T Glass June 10, 2009, 10:15 pm

    Two of my favorite words- two things you can always improve upon.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 10, 2009, 10:18 pm

      right on, Adam. People would think it’s insane, but when I watch you do the things you do, the attention to the tiniest of details is exactly what we’re talking about here, whether it’s doing an arabesque or bending a horseshoe. You can’t do either without some serious focus. And I can’t do either one yet regardless:)

  • Stingo June 13, 2009, 12:38 pm

    Great to meet you in Draper and love your blog!
    Great concepts and philosophy Josh!
    Hope we meet up again next year! Until then good luck with your writing!

  • Mark Powell June 19, 2009, 8:03 pm

    Josh, I really loved this post. I have always been utterly compelled by these sorts of ideas—mastery, in a word.

    You mention learning from those who know more. One less direct, but still very powerful way to do this, is to “surround yourself with mastery” simply by reading biographies of masters!

    In my 30 years of fanatical martial art training, I used to devour bios of masters, Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee, Floyd Patterson and non-fighters, too—cellist Pablo Casals, dancer Balanchine, and so on. Because it starts to rub off. I imbibed their attitudes via osmosis.

    Now, my serious martial art days are done, but I’m carrying that same spirit into striving passionately to master writing. I’m on fire with it, pursuing it like I did fighting. (BTW, George Leonard’s book Mastery, is also superb!)

    Lastly, I’ve read a couple of pieces citing research that suggests that mastery of anything boils down, funny as it seems, to 10,000 hours (20 hours per week for 10 years). According to these articles and books, this plain, homely statistic even trumps talent! Interesting possibility.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking piece.

    • Josh Hanagarne June 19, 2009, 8:15 pm

      That is really intriguing, thank you mark. I’ve heard something similar applied to skill with weights: the concept of 10,000 reps to get to perfection. I’m going to look up George Leonard’s book. I’m always looking for recommendations. Ray Bradbury is someone I would say has mastered writing, and he talks about the importance about exposing yourself to experts of all sorts–I specifically remember (I hope I’m not dreaming) reading an essay where he mentioned being inspired by an essay on beekeeping, of all things.

      Any thing else I should be reading?

  • Wayne Key August 26, 2009, 2:10 pm

    Yes I too have run across the 10,000 hours to mastery concept. It was in “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell. I wrote a couple of articles based on the information in his book, but sadly I turned the book back into the library, (yes there was a small fine, I kept re-doing the articles…. lol) so I don’t have the specific cites at my fingertips.

    There are many interesting things about 10,000 hours of practice. Possibly the most interesting is that massive focus over time changes the brain itself (Kurzweil and Grossman in “Transcend” as well as Gladwell in “Outliers”). It seems that if you have the necessary entry level talent (height in basketball is one example) then massive practice actually builds the brain and body.

    Its a fascinating subject… but as to elegance and mastery, I would simply say that Mastery creates Elegance.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 26, 2009, 4:01 pm

      Wayne, “Mastery creates Elegance” is a great quote. I’ll try to cite you occasionally but may just steal it and take all the credit:)

  • Laree Draper August 26, 2009, 4:45 pm

    We’ll be watching for that and and when it happens, expect us to bust you when you do, Josh.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 26, 2009, 4:46 pm

      Hey Laree. How’s everything going for you guys?

  • Laree Draper August 27, 2009, 6:25 pm

    Busy and fun, Josh, busy and fun.