You Can't Get Hard Using Soft Equipment
Most folks join a gym for one of several, commonly stated reasons. They want to drop a few extra pounds, run their first 5k, or complete a marathon. Others are looking to get strong, develop their speed, or just reclaim the health and fitness from days gone by. Still others are looking to gain the confidence that is known only by those that are strong and fit.
Over the 20+ years I’ve been training people I have observed the same predictable progression in nearly everyone. Now granted, it can differ by the individual, but only by degree. There is a kernel of applicability across the full spectrum of people I’ve trained.
Given enough time and progress, tangible goals, those that fit within neat and easily defined parameters, start to hold less importance. The 5k and marathon lose their luster. Strength, speed, and fitness feel less noteworthy the longer they are possessed and the more common place that they become. The thirst for something much less tangible and far more intrinsic begins to grow. For a few, it’s clear. They know what they want, and they overtly pursue it. They make it their mission. For others, they know what they want, or at least they think they know what they want. However, they either don’t know how to get it, are too scared to take it, or are just not willing to do what they need to in order to achieve it. They are happy to simply wear the t-shirt and post a perfectly timed selfie.
Stated simply, people want to be bad-asses. That’s right, a bad-ass. An ass-stomping, villain crushing, hard-working, red-blooded, come to my compound when the Chi-Comms invade all-American bad-ass. While it has always been true with men, it’s becoming more popular with woman. Look at the movies playing these days – every action flick has an ass-kicking, gun toting, super strong heroine. And you can’t swing a dead cat by the tail without hitting a girl in a “Strong as F@ck” or “CrossFit Bad Ass” t-shirt. Becoming one isn’t complicated, it is just an incredibly difficult undertaking. And therein lies the catch. As with most accomplishments of worth, it’s not the complexity of the task, but rather the effort required that makes it seemingly beyond the reach of the general population
I like the term bad-ass (or as my 5 year old twin boys would say “good ass” because bad ass is a bad word while good ass is a good word). It’s simple, straight forward, and universally understood while still allowing everyone to personally wear it. Stopping a would-be attacker dead in their tracks. Moving yard after yard of dirt under a noonday sun. Working a double, coming home to make diner and then putting the kids to bed before going outside to bust out 100m repeats under the moonlit sky. Digging out cars stranded in 4’ of snow on a stormy winter day. There are as many definitions as there are people to embody them.
You can drive a golf ball 260 yards? Great. Sink 3-pointers all day? Fantastic. Knock a softball out of the park? Amazing. All excellent displays of athleticism. I’m not talking about athleticism. Being a bad-ass is an attitude. It’s an outlook created by trials and tribulations endured under some pretty damn heinous training conditions. 3-pointers don’t win wars or meet deadlines. The person that can stay awake for 24 hours working non-stop while skipping meals without missing a beat or complaining about it, does. They possess the type of bad-assery that makes this country great. (That is not to say athleticism and bad-assery are mutually exclusive. To contrary, they often go hand in hand – just look at Ted Williams, Pat Tillman, Jim Rice, and Rick Monday to name but a few.)
The desire to achieve bad-ass status is nothing new. Every society has had its version. The Roman empire was created on backs of legionaries who were trained to march, in perfect unison, 22 miles in 5 hours while carrying loads of 45-70 lbs. They trained, daily, with swords and shields that weighed twice that of their actual weapons and were able to go from the force march straight into battle. That level of bad-assery didn’t occur using treadmills while sipping lemon water and cooling themselves with air conditioning.
Several hundred years later on the other side of the world the Apache were teaching the US Army what being a bad-ass really meant. Known for their super human levels of stamina and endurance borne of a brutally unforgiving environment, they engaged in some pretty radical training protocols. From the time they were 8 or 9 years old, the Apache practiced running long distances with a mouthful of water. This ensured they breathed only through their noses, thus learning how to be more efficient in their breathing and vastly improving their recovery rates. Adult Apache warriors were expected to be able to run for 50 miles with a mouthful of water. The fact it took 5000 soldiers, 600 Indian scouts, and several thousand civilian militia nearly 2 years to track down and catch Geronimo and his 24 Apache warriors gives testimony to their level of bad-assery. It is safe to say Geronimo didn’t abide mouth breathers.
No list of Bad-Asses is complete without mentioning the Night Witches. The 588thAviation Regiment was a Soviet all-female bomber unit that served in WWII. Flying in wooden and canvass, open-cockpit, unarmed biplanes that were so slow and so underpowered that they could only carry two bombs at a time, as they got into enemy territory they would fly “nap of the earth” in order to remaining concealed behind trees. Once within striking distance they would gain elevation, and then cut their engines before diving silently to drop their deadly payload on their targets. The only thing the Nazi bastards would hear before all hell broke loose was the whoosh of their craft gliding by in the dark. To ensure they were able to get bombs on target, they were trained to draw enemy fire for each other. Let that sink in. They flew bombing missions into enemy territory and were expected to draw fire for each other. “Svetlana, take this highly flammable, unarmed, wooden and canvas open cock pit biplane and purposely draw enemy fire. You’ll be fine.” As far as training – brilliance in the basics, baby. There was no money or room for luxury Items. Parachutes, radar, and radios were too heavy and too costly. They made do with rulers, stop watches, flashlights, pencils, and a map and compass. They didn’t need fancy, they just needed basic equipment and the desire to use it.
Like it or not, in order to become a bad-ass there is a certain amount of suffering that must occur. When it is deliberate, well planned, and prescribed in the right doses, suffering holds great worth and is irreplaceable when creating the positive mental attitude needed to take your toughness to the next level. Opportunities abound to suffer every time we walk into the gym. Standing tall at the end of a WOD rather than keeling over or taking a knee. Breathing through the nose rather than panting uncontrollably like a whooped dog. Owning each rep from start to finish rather than slouching over, collapsing, sending the weight downward like vomit spewing from your mouth. Choosing the hard WODs. The unforgiving ones. The ones that make you address weaknesses, or that you know are going to make you suffer, badly. The ones that come with a steep cost if not done correctly. It’s easy to get into shape. It’s hard to become a bad-ass.
I always chuckle when I see a canvas “atlas stone”. What the hell is that? The atlas stone’s value lies in is extremely demanding nature. They are punishing. They do not compromise. They are unforgiving. Whether you lift it well or lift it poorly, valuable learning occurs. What the hell is the point of lifting an atlas stone that you can drop without any regard for where it lands, or how it lands? What is the point of lifting an atlas stone that is soft and kind to the skin? I wonder what kind of laughter it would elicit from a Roman Legionnaire, or an Apache Warrior, or one of the Night Witches. There is a reason boxers always do well in fist fights. Their success lies not in their ability to throw a punch but rather, their ability to take a punch.
The Krakens (my twin boys) love riding their bikes. When they are in my parking lot I don’t have them wear helmets, and I sure as hell don’t put pants or long sleeves on them. They love to learn tricks. They try wheelies, figure eights, one handed, no hands, and lots of jumps. They crash, often. And it hurts. Those small, controlled doses of suffering are doing their job. It’s making them tough. It’s making them bold. They are learning everything comes at a cost. It’s making them bad-asses. Don’t let yourself get distracted by the fancy stuff or the sweet succor of “the easier” way. If you want to be a bad-ass, you have to do tricks without the helmet and give yourself a dose of suffering.