Beyond the Monkey Stomp

With the year coming to a close, many people are starting to think about new year's resolutions. If 2017 aligns with decades of years previously researched, 'getting in shape' is likely to remain high on those resolution lists.

The fact that the same resolution tends to crop up, year after year, points to an ugly truth: the vast majority of people fall short of their annual get-in-shape goal. There are lot of reasons why they do, and we’ll try to look at a few of them in the days and weeks to come. But one problem that’s increasingly prevalent is that most people focus on ‘working out’ in stead of on ‘training.’

Training is something you do to achieve a specific performance goal or a physiological adaptation. To train, you start with that goal or adaptation in mind, then work backwards to construct a carefully-designed, science-backed plan that will take you, step by step, to where you want to end up.

Whereas working out is an end in and of itself, something you do regularly with a vague sense that it will get you to a nebulously-defined better place. And because you’re not clear on your plan, nor on metrics that will let you measure the effectiveness of your efforts along the way, you default to more subjective evaluations of your gym session. Did it seem super hard? Where you lying on the ground after in a pool of sweat? Are you painfully sore for days to come?

All of those seem like reasonable heuristics. If you’re sore, then certainly the workout did something. And if you toss your cookies midway through, then clearly the workout must have pushed you to the max. 

But, in fact, neither of those are reliable signposts. Your sore muscles (or DOMS – delayed onset muscle soreness) simply mean you exceeded your current capacity for safe eccentric contraction. Your mid-workout cookie toss? Just a sign that you built up lactic acid systemically faster than your body could flush it out. Neither necessarily means your fitness level is improving. And it’s perfectly possible to get fitter, faster, without doing either one.

Elite coaches refer to this kind of pointless destruction as ‘monkey stomping’ their trainees. And, indeed, a lot of the GloboGym personal trainers we see seem to design workouts specifically to hit that sort of monkey stomp, knowing that clients want to feel like they left it all in the gym, are more likely to come back for a second session if they just got pushed to their limits in their first. CrossFitters, SoulCyclers, Barry’s Bootcampers, and others thrive on the monkey-stomped feeling. It’s the unspoken core selling point of most group exercise classes: we can kick your ass harder than anyone else.

But, it turns out, getting monkey stomped repeatedly is pretty unpleasant. And once the start-of-year drive towards righteous self-flagellation peters out, people tend to abandon those sorts of ‘take it to 11’ approaches in droves. Whereas people following an actual training approach, who don’t hate every single session, who can start to see meaningful progress from checkpoint to checkpoint and milestone to milestone, tend to increasingly build their commitment over the course of time, intrinsically motivated to further cement the training habit.

So, in short, if your plan for 2017 involves getting into shape, consider searching out professional advice from someone who can help you figure out a training plan rather than just a series of workouts. Ask them what the big picture of their approach for you would be, and how you’ll know if an individual session is pushing you forward. If they can’t answer that – or, worse, if their answer involves some variation of the monkey stomp – then turn and run (or, depending on Thanksgiving-to-Christmas binge eating, waddle) the other way. Make 2017 the year you cross ‘get in shape’ off your resolutions list for good.

[Obligatory deeply self-interested plug: after a bit of scaling up, Composite now has room for a handful of new clients, in NYC and elsewhere; shoot us an email if you’d like our take on what training – rather than just workout out – could mean for you.]