Physical fitness is a valuable thing to possess, a gift we give ourselves through a willingness to learn, sacrifice and do the hard work. It’s also a gift many of us give as we teach, encourage and support those in need of guidance. The result can be quite beautiful—in fact, training could be considered an art.
In the medical field, we have a term called “cookbook medicine” that means the practitioner follows a standard protocol based on a superficial presentation of symptoms. For example, if you come in feeling down and depressed, you might be sent out with the latest antidepressant. You would be met with little investigation into the causes and possible lifestyle adjustments that might clear things up, because that would take too much time and effort. “Cookbook medicine” is an insult of sorts, implying that the doctor isn’t taking into account all variables of the individual and applying the “art” of medicine. The art of medicine is the better approach in most cases, as it draws on the depth of the physician’s knowledge and problem-solving capacity to individualize a treatment plan. This is what we all expect because we know that we are individuals and have unique genetics, physiology, environmental exposures, and lifestyle.
Being an artist takes time and extensive personal development. Following the cookbook is fast and easy. Economically there is pressure to be faster and less artsy, but in the long run, the artist is valued and rewarded for their craft. They are able to diagnose the hidden ailments and provide real relief when needed.
So. Are you an artist or do you follow a cookbook?
We see a lot of cookbook practitioners in the world of fitness and nutrition. It doesn’t take much to apply what is learned from a blog post or a weekend certification, but there is no depth or understanding behind this superficial knowledge. For example, plenty of trainers can describe a deadlift. It’s simple: grab the bar, keep a neutral spine and stand up straight. Don’t round your back or you might get hurt. You might even watch some YouTube videos of some really “good” athletes deadlifting. Now you can teach the deadlift, right?
Probably, but why does a neutral spine matter in a deadlift? What are you protecting exactly? What are the potential back injuries? Where are the potential forces being applied? Do you know what the vertebral discs do and how about facet joints or multifidus muscles? Do you know that the hamstrings are attached to the ischial tuberosities of the pelvis, the femur, tibia and fibula and cross two joints? What about the erector spinae muscles, rhomboids, serratus anterior, and latissimus dorsi? Is it important to understand that all of these parts (among many others) are involved in the deadlift? Is it important to understand how abdominal bracing plays a role in intrathecal pressure? What is the benefit of a lifting belt? How about Wolff’s law and bone density? Tensile strength of ligaments, muscles, and tendons?
Is this important?
It is to the artist. This is the medium with which they are working. These are the details that they need to know in order to understand what it is they are working with—the human frame. An extremely complicated and amazingly intricate piece of meaty machinery.
It takes considerable study and personal development to combine skill and technique into artistry. An artist of physical training will learn the foundations of the human body and its potential variation, employing knowledge of functional anatomy, athletic physiology and general physics. They will understand injury and tissue healing, geek out on biomechanics and physiologic movement patterns, anticipate the stress response and recovery needs. An artist can adjust a program intelligently to meet the client’s needs, seeing ineffective and potentially harmful movement faults quickly and correcting them appropriately. Fixing a squat becomes easier when you understand center of mass, ankle flexibility, biometrics, femur length, acetabular angles, hamstring flexibility, spine positioning, muscle activation, etc. The artist isn’t restricted to throwing out the cues that they’ve heard from other trainers until something “works.” They’ve mastered the underlying puzzle pieces, like a chef called to assemble a meal with surprise ingredients.
The cook needs a book, but the master needs only a kitchen.