Lesson 2: Fitness takes a long time to build, but it also has a long shelf life
In other words, you don’t lose it as fast as you think you will.
People come back from a week of vacation, or two weeks of travel, or a summer off and say “Oh, I feel like shit. I haven’t done shit, I ate like shit, and I’m pretty sure they found traces of blood in my alcohol stream… I’ve lost everything. I’m starting over from square one.”
Now, I’m not saying that you might have added a few seconds to your mile time, or dropped a few pounds on your strict press, or that you’re not going to be sore as hell after the first few workouts. But I am saying that you’ll knock the rust off much faster than you think you will- that even a few months off won’t set your training back that far. It takes you a lot longer to build your fitness than it does for you to break it down. Yes, there will be backslides. No, you will not fall back to where you started.
I’ve explained this to skeptical athletes over and over again. There are two principles at play here: the Sickness-Wellness-Fitness continuum, and the STALTA principle. As I oozed back into my own training, I’ve had the opportunity validate both of these first hand.
My condensed version goes like this: there are any number of biometrics that we can measure to assess how healthy a person is- blood pressure, body fat, cholesterol levels, resting heart rate, etc, etc, etc. Modern medicine views a person’s health on the spectrum of “Sick” to “Well.” If a person comes in and has a blood pressure reading of 150/100, the doctor’s goal is to treat the “sick” symptom to get the person back into the “well,” such as a blood pressure of 120/80. If you visit the doctor and all of your vitals and blood work come back as “well,” then you’re said to be healthy.
CrossFit’s position is that “well” is only half way through the spectrum; that we can actually move people further along, towards a status of “fit.” If a healthy resting heart rate is 60-100, what about the athlete who has a resting heart rate of 50? What about LDL levels at 60 mg/dL instead of 120? (It should be noted that within each metric there is also a range that would be defined as dangerous- blood pressure below 90/60, LDL below 40, body fat below 2%, etc).
The conclusion of the concept becomes that if we can move a person from “well” to “fit,” when life jumps up and bites you in the ass, the slide backwards on the continuum will be from “fit” back to “well,” instead of from “well” down to “sick.”
Sure enough, despite my prolonged absence from being able to participate in the WOD (as well as the copious amount of beer I consumed and utter disregard for my nutrition), I found that I still had quite a bit of work capacity as I slowly began to work my way back into a regular rhythm. I wasn’t as far behind on the workouts as I expected. And my resting heart rate? Still 48- the nurse checked twice because she didn’t believe it. (We won’t talk about pant sizes just yet… I really do love beer. I think that might qualify me to sit on the Supreme Court… I kid, I kid)
STALTA: Old Man Strength
I picked up the phrase Strength Takes a Lifetime to Acquire from Rob Orlando at the CrossFit Strongman seminar. It’s a concept that explains something that you’ve probably heard of before: old man strength. In a nutshell, the basic concept is that true strength is developed over decades, through thousands of reps, by moving hundreds of thousands of pounds. Whether it’s hoisting a bag of cement, moving a bale of hay, front squatting hundred of pounds, strength is something that is built over a very long time, not a handful of lifting cycles. Remember how your dad could always seem to overpower you, no matter how much time you’d spent in the weight room? That’s the accumulation of a lifetime of strength you’re trying to wrestle.
There’s a great documentary about the sport of Strongman on Netflix called “Born Strong.” When talking about one of the sport’s elder statesman, Zydrunas “Big Z” Savickas, the observation is made:
“There’s a huge advantage to doing this in a sustained way over a longer period of time because what you’re ultimately doing is completely rebuilding your physiology, and that takes time to do because you can only do it a little bit at a time… ...There is no shortcut to it. No eighteen year old is coming up behind you. They can’t be.”
(Side note- no matter how good you think you are, if you ever want to feel like just a weak, lazy, sloth of an athlete, just watch “Born Strong” and “Iron Cowboy” back to back. You could always throw in “The Redeemed and the Dominant” to add salt to the wound. Seriously, we’re all pathetic. Ah, genetics…)
Strength is acquired a little at a time, over the course of your entire life.
I bore witness to this on my road to recovery. Front squats were the first movement with which I could really push the load on the barbell without compromising my shoulder. The workout was heavy sets of 3 front squats. I was a little nervous and very unsure of where I would end up, but I knew it was time to start testing the waters. To come completely clean, I was scared. Despite my knowledge to the contrary, that little voice in the back of my mind was assuring me that I’d lost everything, that I was now weak and pathetic.
Which is why I shocked myself a bit as I continue to add more and more weight, eventually working up to a heavy set of 3 that was not terribly far from the weight I was able to do pre-surgery. No, I wasn’t quite as strong as I was before. And the discrepancy from strength before to strength after was even greater with anything involving my shoulder- presses, push ups, handstands, etc. But I didn’t lose EVERYTHING. I lost a little strength, but I was still strong. And the more I work myself back into the rhythm, the faster that strength seems to be coming back. It’s an accumulation of time. Months, years, decades. There is no shortcut.
Following surgery, I had the opportunity to serve as a living testament to these two principals. My lack of physical activity for an extended period of time slid me backwards on the continuum a bit, landing around “well” instead of leaning towards “fit”, but avoiding falling into “sick”. I lost some of my strength, but I’ve accrued enough time under the barbell over the years to afford me some relative sense of strong. My fitness, as it turns out, wasn’t completely squandered, even after months away from the box.
There were all sorts of nuggets of wisdom that I picked up during my recovery. Although I was well versed in scaling and modifying movements for injuries, I’d never had to modify workouts so drastically. While I knew that recovery from injury is generally aggravating and frustrating, I had no experience with such an intense and prolonged recuperation (and there is often a vast chasm between knowing something to be true and experiencing it yourself).
I was astonished at how slowly the entire process moved, and how different the scale of progression became; I wasn’t measuring improvement in pounds or reps or seconds, but rather in literal degrees of motion. Lifting my hand over my head was a greater cause for celebration than my lifetime deadlift PR. As an athlete, it is extraordinarily frustrating to know what you USED to be able to do versus what you CAN do today. My experience through this process has given me a much deeper and meaningful insight to what recovering from a surgery of this magnitude entails; I’m not being understanding of an athlete’s recovery, I know what they’re going through first hand.
Even as you make your way back, there’s always a nervousness that you’ve lost everything; that you’re slow, weak, and out of shape. This surgery allowed me to test the idea that fitness takes a lot longer to build than it does to lose. The results of my personal experiment (N=1) are that both the concept of “Sick, Well, Fit” as well as “Strength Takes a Lifetime to Acquire” prove to be true. I’m not just teaching theories, I’m speaking from experience. I know that it isn’t easy to get back in the groove. But it is reassuring that you aren’t starting over from square one.
But most importantly, it has taught me that people’s tendency to shy away from their weaknesses isn’t limited to training. This is another lesson from that we can take from the box and apply to everyday life: there are many areas of our lives in which we could improve ourselves and our performance by focusing on the things that hold us back.
I hope that neither you nor I ever have to recover from that or any other surgery (again). But this journey has, without a doubt, made me a better athlete, coach, and person. Sometimes all you can do is smile and make the most out of the cards you’re dealt.