Effective Training Does Not Require Complexity

Earlier this week, I wrote about the success of Mongolian athletes in judo (see here). As discussed throughout, the Mongolians work hard and possess extreme mental toughness. These athletes have excelled at the international level despite training with what some would describe as a rudimentary style. For example, in the documentary that I shared, you will see a group of athletes running a mountain and then performing pushups at the top. I’m guessing some readers were expecting a more elaborate approach.

Mongolia Judo Training

To no surprise, it did not take long after I wrote the entry to find some snide remarks about it. One comment read as follows:

“Running and pushups, yippee. Show me something that I don’t know.”

Complexity Does Not Equal Success

Some might argue that such comments are not worthy of attention, but if you overlook ignorance, you allow it to spread. One of the fundamental problems with the fitness industry today is the myth that more complexity equates to more success. This notion could not be further from the truth.

Flashy exercises may attract more attention, but rarely will such movements provide the benefits of those exercises that have stood the test of time. It is much easier to criticize a Mongolian athlete who runs and performs pushups than it is to get off your ass and join them. Anyone with a keyboard can become a critic. There are no other prerequisites. Unfortunately, banging on the keyboard will not improve your ability to run steep mountains and perform hundreds of pushups in the cold.

Knowledge Does Not Equal Power

Another myth that has been spread through the online era is that knowledge equals power. Regrettably, it will take more than knowledge for you to become stronger and better conditioned. Without action, knowledge will always be limited.

For instance, the pushup is perhaps the most recognizable exercise in the world. Almost every adult has performed a pushup at some point in their life. Yet how many adults are highly capable of performing continuous pushups? You’ll be hard pressed to find even a handful of adults in everyday life that can perform 50 reps. In other words, knowledge of the pushup does not equate to performance with the pushup.

You Can’t Handle The Truth

Jack Nicholson’s famous line from A Few Good Men rings true for many exercise enthusiasts.

You can't handle the truth

High levels of strength and endurance are rare. If you are genuinely strong or well conditioned, you are in the minority. Ironically, there is an abundance of information online about becoming stronger and better conditioned. Therefore, the problem is clearly not related to a lack of material. If anything, there may be too much information. Everyone and their brother seem to be inventing new exercises these days. I’d bet that more exercises have been invented for Instagram videos in the last year than the combined number of exercises created over the previous 100 years.

Most of the people inventing these ridiculous exercises don’t actually train anyone however. They are more concerned about attracting attention than they are about developing real athletes. Unfortunately, the fitness novices of the world take the bait and fall into their trap. These individuals constantly seek out new exercises. Whatever they have seen or read is never enough. They always feel that they are missing what is necessary to become stronger or better conditioned.

The reality though is that they already have what they need. Lack of knowledge is not the problem. Instead, the problem lies within the individual. It is much easier to blame your failures on a lack of knowledge as opposed to a lack of effort. It’s a hard pill to swallow for anyone to accept that they didn’t put in the work. And that’s why there will always be more people who are weak than those who are strong. It’s human nature to place the blame elsewhere rather than looking in the mirror.

Training vs. Inventing

Real trainers are not paid to invent exercises. We are paid to develop and improve our athletes. With that in mind, we are certainly open to new ideas, but also cognizant of the fact that new ideas rarely replace those that have already proved to be effective. Speaking for myself, my training approach is clearly rooted in the fundamentals. I don’t care if the exercises that we perform appear flashy or not. I’m not looking for style points and I don’t care if the exercises are new or old. I am only concerned with what works. And in my 20+ years of training, I continually reap rewards from time tested exercises that would appear basic to many casual observers. What these observers fail to realize however is that your greatest effort will eventually succumb to even the most basic exercise.

When the Mongolians run hills and perform pushups, it may not look flashy but you can be sure that it is effective. No one will ever outgrow the fundamentals. These so-called basic exercises will eventually challenge even the most highly conditioned athletes in the world. As I’ve said before, how you do what you do matters more than what you do. The job of a trainer is to maximize the how you do part of the equation. Getting my athletes to apply more effort to basic exercises has always been a recipe for success.

Some athletes may initially doubt such an approach, but it doesn’t take long from them to have a change of heart. I always enjoy working with new clients who have previously trained at state of the art facilities. I usually introduce them to my style by meeting them at the bottom of a mountain road. When they first see me, there is often a look of confusion. They aren’t sure if it is some type of joke. It is at that point when I smile and start running. That’s when they know it is for real. Once we are finished training at the top of the mountain, there is always a look of shock. They aren’t sure what the heck just happened. And even if they did know, the lack of oxygen makes it difficult to formulate complete sentences.

That’s when I smile again and welcome them to the old school.

Related Entry: Rooted in the Fundamentals

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“History is filled with brilliant people who wanted to fix things and just made them worse.” – Chuck Palahniuk

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31 comments:

  1. Ross,

    Well put. I think it boils down to cognitive dissonance. I’m paying a lot of money, therefore the flashy stuff must be worth more than some guy running up a hill doing pushups. If the hill and pushups (cost = a pair of sneakers) were as good as the flashy gym, why am I paying so much for a flashy gym?

  2. Coach,

    I agree with you, which is far and few. I was captain of the national team (boxing) for almost a decade have had ATC,CSCS other letters after my name.

    What people fail to recognize is that any program is only as good as the mental strength of the athlete (coach) behind it. The stuff Talent Code is made of.

    I’ve learned about and done personally many different training programs and theory. But now as a coach I stick to the KISS method and develop the pulling strength, footwork and an athletes individual talents.

    Thanks for the great content, I feel like I have been following you for a decade or so.
    If your even in Boulder CO your welcome to train at my Club.
    Carrie

  3. There must be something in human nature that makes people believe that new is better than old and that complex is better than simple. I think people fail to determine whether something new or complex is an improvement over the old or simple. If it were not for gullible people, much of the fitness industry would probably collapse.

    1. Right. Most people don’t respect the old, whether old advice/history or old people. G.K. Chesterton called his respect “The Democracy of the Dead.”

  4. I just watched the countdown to UFC 180.I Was surprised at the low tech training the champions were doing to prepare themselves for the altitude of Mexico City. This consisted of hill sprints, stair running push ups etc. Also of course a lot of sport specific training.These athletes are the best in the world at what they do. Simplicity seems to work just fine for them.

  5. Great post Ross,
    If you’ve ever read the late success coach Jim Rohn, his recipe for success was….a few simple disciplines, practiced every day. Or as the great trumpeter Doc Severinsen used to say, “Have ya thought about practicing?” There is no magic bullet. And ya don’t need a guru.
    Return to the basics. Master the basics. Guess that’s why they call it “basic training” in the military.
    Have a Great Day

  6. Great post as always. Mastery and base are so very often overlooked in this industry. This article reminds me of the criticism I read about our own US military’s pt. Its often the lack of practice that is the culprit, not the practice itself.

  7. I like the quote from Brett Jones RE: Using the basics vs. variety.

    “Do you want to be entertained or do you want results?”

  8. I like these sort of articles very much. I am now 54 years old and when I was younger I trained a lott of martial arts (as I do now) and we never did any heavy weightlifting stuff. There was not so much to find then so we just did push-ups, situps etc. and we did quit well in tournaments.
    But now with Internet I am confused about supplementary training, do I have to train with heavy deadlifts, squats, bench presses etc. or can I keep myself in shape with what I always have done?
    The biggest problem is organizing the workouts now, before Internet I start with a run, did some push-up, sit-ups stretching and then I trained my martial art.
    Now it seems that you have to have special wotkout days for strength, for endurance and for your martial arts.
    Does anybody have suggestions about that?

  9. Absolute truth:

    “They are more concerned about attracting attention than they are about developing real athletes. Unfortunately, the fitness novices of the world take the bait and fall into their trap. These individuals constantly seek out new exercises. Whatever they have seen or read is never enough.”

    The internet, for its wealth of information–is an addictive drug and popularity contest for a lot of people. I know for me, in the beginning it was hard to tell the difference between those who were offering wise counsel on conditioning and those who were just in it for the number of views they could get. I used to be one of those novices you speak of. I still have plenty of room to learn, but the anxiety of whether I’m doing things right or wrong is gone. Now, I just DO, and I know I’m on the right track.

    This is the only site I come to for counsel on training. Whether it is asking you (Ross) directly, or searching through the past posts and forums. What I need, what I think anyone who is serious about training; is covered here. What is needed for growth, motivation and progression; is here.

    I know their are other great sites out there; but I don’t have to question your words. I’ve tested them for myself and I know what’s true, what works.

    Much of what you offer isn’t just applicable to training either; I’ve applied the advice and attitude you speak of to other things and have been successful with them. If you’re going to train, train. If you’re going to write, write. If you’re going to master the ukulele, practice everyday, don’t let critics influence you negatively and believe it is possible.

    Through your example and words, I better understand the greatness of the human potential.

    Enough for now, thanks for all you do Ross.

  10. I been at PF, Edge Fitness, and YMCA. Two places I got into the best shape of my life:
    1. My basement. I did the most basic exercises and I kept getting fitter and stronger.
    2. Boxing gym. This gym was something out of the 1st Rocky movie. It was as bare-bones as it gets. In 6-months I looked 20 years younger and had one hell of a punch to go with it.

    I am done with gyms (unless another boxing gym opens up in my area) and sticking to the basics with the simple tools I now have in my garage.

    The key to my successes at these two places: consistency and doing the stuff that works.

  11. my training partner and i hit a local park with a steep hill that leads to the top overlook about 12 – 13 times a year when the weather allows. as i was moving up the steep grade wearing a ‘makeshift training mask’ i noticed a group of folks coming down the hill using the much easier to handle not so steep trail. i passed them by on my way up doing my last rep and gave a nod to the group. after i came back down the hill and was finishing up with some kettlebell swings a 40 ish women from the group approached me and asked why was i working so hard..was i training for some event etc?? i stated at my age i just wanted to try to stay in shape and she inquired as to my age. 62 i replied. she told me exercise should be fun and not a chore!! i calmyly replied to her ..you should have seen the huge grin on my face under the ‘mask’i was wearing while going up the hill!!they all shook their heads and walked off!!

  12. HI ROSS, ONCE AGAIN YOU ARE RIGHT ON THE MONEY. IN OVER 50 YEARS OF TRAINING I HAVE NOT SEEN ANYTHING THAT HAS IMPROVED ON WHAT WE WERE DOING AT THE BEGINNING. WHEN I THINK OF JUST HOW LITTLE IS NEEDED OF PATIENTLY AND CONSISTENTLY APPLIED BASIC TRAINING IT APPEARS TO ME TO BE VERY ELEGANT.
    REGARDS, PETER.

  13. I served a few years in the British Armed Forces, and all I did most days was 800 to 1200 pushups and run 3- 6 miles. I was never so fit and strong. My problem started, when I left the Forces and got brain washed by the propaganda.i.e. you need a flashy gym membership the latest gear etc. I recently went back to my old system of training. Minus the running. I am doing inclined pushups ( hands on chairs or table) body-weight squats, a few sit-ups and walking. I feel my strength and especially my sanity returning to what it was. Never joining a gym again. I’ve got all of Ross’s books, I love reading them for motivation and for fun.

  14. I’ll hold my hand up as being a person in search of perfect. The perfect exercise program. The perfect martial art. The perfect diet. The perfect, well the perfect everything

    Watching a documentary on the history of the AK47 I came across the Russian saying “Perfect is the enemy of good enough”. **BAM** right there was the answer I was looking for.

    Get out there and do something, anything. As Nike says “just do it”

  15. I’ve been doing your workouts for 10 years. Sledgehammer, jump rope, intervals, hills, hung a rope in my back yard, boxing ect. All at my home in my garage. I went to a CrossFit gym to try it, to see what I was missing. After I easily got through the inital workout they gave me a deck of cards and proceeded to tell me about the workout (one of the first workouts i got off your site). I was kinda shocked when I looked around and saw the big tire ( not as big as mine) a rope, medicine ball, pull up bars, ect. Most of the workout equipment in that gym I had made or bought used, and have been doing similar workouts that I got off rossboxing for 10 years. I cannot imagine spending 1 cent for a gym. I’m a 36 yr old stay at home mom and can do 100 push ups in a row, thanks to your workouts. So when people ask me ” Do you do CrossFit” I tell them no, I do rossboxing.com. Thank You for all my workouts.

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  17. So glad I came across this today. I have fallen off of training (life) for a while and I realize I am one of “those”. I need some new fangled exercise program to get the gains I want. I bought your exercise books and video quite a few years ago and started to work on them and then i fell off again!!!! I travel a lot for work and can’t always have a gym available. I know, again, that I don’t have to follow it all to the pen stroke, I can improvise and get back to basics and still have a stellar workout. Ross, you are my personal trainer in your strength, perseverance, determination, and knowledge. Thank you for everything you do for us in your community.
    -Jeremy

  18. Ross, what would you consider moderate to high levels of strength and endurance? Have you ever quantified that? Often you find these lists are lacking but I was just wondering what you might consider fit.

    1. I’m not a big fan of general standards/measurements. For example, what it takes to be conditioned for boxing is entirely different from what it takes to be conditioned for baseball. Yes, this is a somewhat random example, but I coach both sports so they come to mind quickly when comparing physical needs/development. Ultimately, fitness varies by context. The key is to work in a way that is relevant to your interests/needs. And if you don’t compete in a sport, it’s even easier to address your needs.

      1. Just a side note. I discovered, by chance that heavy bag work, including kicks helped me greatly, when I was dropped into a 5 a side football (soccer) tournament at short notice. The ball never goes out of play, just bounces back off the walls/pannels.

  19. Comments get fast to off-track where folks tell stories how commercial gyms or crossfit boxes suck on everything. Well, that is not true either, is it. I feel that Ross is once again talking about the training programming. You should always start from the plan. Who, what, where, when..

    If the person wants to succeed on some sport, then the plan must progress towards sports specific preparation. If the person wants to get “fit”, then plenty of time should be spent on aerobic exercises, while calisthenics can be done for anaerobic purposes. Finally, if the person wants to get strong, then most of the effort should be spent lifting stuff. Still, everyone should understand the meaning of planning, while the plan forwards the effort towards the wanted results.

    There are also some commercial thingys that help on training. A modern heart-beat monitor is a must on hill running. First of all, the device tells you if you are rested enough to make a high intensity training. The device tells you if you working on the level you thing you are. If you feel that legs can’t take it anymore, but the heart beat isn’t max then you know that your limits are on the strength endurance. If the heart rate maxes right away and doesn’t come down, you know that your aerobic capacity is lacking.

    Another not so modern idea is a training partner. Training partner makes you more committed, motivated and clearly improves the progress. For example, Crossfit provides kind of commercial training partners in a form of a Box.

    1. I wouldn’t be so quick to suggest commercial tools and training partners. I personally never use a heart-rate monitor and prefer to train alone. Ultimately, it’s up to the individual to choose what he/she prefers. What we shouldn’t do is create the false notion that such things are “needed” to train effectively. Need is a grossly overused word in this industry.

  20. Thanks again Ross. Keeping me clear minded and on task. Making gains daily and having fun while doing it should be the goal regardless of whether you are getting fit or training for a purpose. My only goal is a daily PR and I train old school which means I WORK and do not worry about supplements and fancy moves. Run/Cycle/Calisthenics/Weights/Swimming. Getting faster, stronger and more endurant every day.

  21. The bare bones minimum approach is a win win siruation. One of the things you always say Ross is that its an individual opinion. I love doing burpees but use squat thrusts way more in my workouts. Although burpees are more effective I have gotten very conditioned using squat thrusts. I base my workouts around variations of only 3 exercises (all calisthenics )with some type of iso hold added in. This type of training has gotten me in the best shape of my life at the age of 55. Thank you Ross for all of your shared knowledge.

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