Sedentary Athlete’s Dilemma

“Not to beat the car metaphor to death, but you have to look at every athlete as a complex engine with thousands of moving parts. And you, the coach, are trying to squeeze every single drop of horsepower you can out of that engine.”


Movement is never a simple black and white dichotomy, and we can never understand movement and how it relates to the individual from visual examination alone. The exterior is often misleading, and many beginners start the learning process by simply imitating their references. It’s also hard for a beginner to have strong motivations for something they have never done before, and only have surface knowledge of. In any case, the exterior is what attracts people and what gets most exposure regardless of our intentions.

We may look at someone doing a plank and think that they are training their abs, but that is from our outsider’s point of view. There may be any number of motivations behind the exercise which as spectators we do not have immediate access to, particularly when we are virtual spectators.

Purpose is not an intrinsic property of exercises or movements, and if we use a little imagination we can create our own novel purposes from pre-existing ones. With this in mind we shouldn’t be so quick to take what we see at face value.

Examples of different lenses with which to view movement:

What am I learning?

What am I reinforcing?

What am I exploring?

What am I strengthening?

What am I stretching?

What am I challenging (mental/physical)?

What am I enjoying/benefiting from in the immediate term?

The modern progression has been towards training and turning people into athletes, I.e. the focus has shifted to a single, easily measurable outcome: increasing productivity. This is in direct comparison to the changes that happened during and since the industrial revolution which has lead to the mechanisation and automation of processes, along with the division of labour and specialisation. Humans began to create and use ever more complicated machines and means in order to enhance their exercise sessions and themselves. The emphasis changed from being on the individual (the interior) towards the object (the exterior). This implicated not only exercise equipment, but a whole range of supplements, aids, treatments and merchandise which now appear as necessary elements in a complicated equation which is both alien and alienating for outsiders (beginners) and the experienced alike. Health, fitness, movement, or simply put, a personal relationship and ownership of one’s own body are unimaginable and out of reach for all but the elite.  We can no longer know or govern ourselves, and must rely on the authorities to tell us what is best for us.  The only problem is that many authorities only have their best interests at heart.

Athletes (people) train (move) to achieve very specific goals which are based around competition with external agents and the potential rewards of fame and financial gains. The human becomes a specialist in the name of efficiency, and the spirit (hidden elements at the heart) of movement is lost because it was not an obvious external component.

The vocabulary itself speaks a lot about the nature of the practice. “Training” implies at least one explicit and extrinsically motivated goal of some sort, which in turn demands an often regimented procedure and means of objective measurement. An event or specific end is what we train for. We train to pass the physical tests to join the army, we train to win a particular competition or to beat a particular record for example. Training is the fundamental opposite of instinctive and improvised movement, but it is my contention that without allowing the training mindset to suffocate the natural or instinctual, plastic and playful side of things, we can use training for the benefit of our physical-self-studies. It appears to be a delicate balance though, which is made more difficult by the fact that many of us who search for a stronger mind-body connection are residents of a society in which everything is geared towards convenience and efficiency. We want our meals to be fast, and healthy, we want our exercises to give us “the most bang for the buck”, and we’d gladly make meditation more efficient if only we could. It therefore becomes natural for this way of thinking and behaving to extend its way into other areas. The idea of having time set aside to train is itself a symptom of strange relationship with our bodies and our health, in a society that depends on ritualisation for the sake of efficiency (again). Nowadays we have to schedule spontaneity and take classes on how to use our initiatives, which is to say that what should be personal has been rendered impersonal and the power of the individual has passed into the hands of someone else. We have (im)personal trainers instead of movement-based-self-actualisation-guides or elders. But much of this wouldn’t be necessary if we didn’t lose our capabilities and playful mindset in the first place, therefore much of what the fitness industry represents is ad-hoc solutions to environmental and cultural/ social problems.

Athletes are touted as being the peak of human fitness, and this is a huge problem with the myth.  Athletes are not made (trained) to last in the long run, they are shaped to perform a relatively simple job at extremely high intensity, and thus for an artificially limited period of time.  Athletic values are in fact the opposite of all that is healthy, while maintaining a heroic physique and facade that is easy to sell to a vulnerable public.

Not only are we expected to work hard 5 days a week from the comfort of our ergonomic office chairs, but we also must train as athletes in our spare time, lifting more, maintaining low body fat and breaking PR’s.  This understimulation/overstimulation cycle is characteristic of life in a domesticated society where there is very little middle ground between the extremes.  It soon becomes painfully clear though, that one cannot mix and match a sedentary lifestyle with the training regimen needed in order to become the mythical athlete or even just have his body, like as sold to us by the magazines, photos and online videos.  The bitter pill to swallow is that the environments we have been raised in do not provide the ideal conditions to become the kind of person we are pushed to be, in fact the societal ideals are at odds with the environmental and societal conditions.

Instead of asking ourselves “is my training functional and transferable to real life?”, we should be demanding whether or not our daily lives are dysfunctional, and if they are conducive not only to what we want to do with our bodies in the immediate and long term, but more importantly to what we want to achieve in life.  In this sense, the concept of “functional training” is often looking at the problem in reverse, hoping that a bunch of treatments, whose content is still informed by the idea of building a stronger human instead of a more holistically healthy and mobile one, will compensate for the inadequacies of our lifestyles and our inability to accept them.

Human ≠ Athlete ≠ Machine