Exploring what it means to be human.
A project by @jakewies.

Perfect Systems

It's fashionable to label oneself as a Type-A personality. Wikipedia describes these individuals as competitive, highly organized, ambitious, impatient, highly aware of time management and/or aggressive. Being that I am a trendy member of society, I identify as Type-A, sans aggressive. These traits serve me well, but each of them are a double-edged sword.

Consider competitiveness. A quality that drives me, pushes me to be a better version of myself, fuels me through difficult training sessions. I can spot another competitor out of a group of ten phonies. There's a mystical aura about us. We'll be the ones covered in goosebumps watching Dwyane Wade highlights on YouTube. I would not be where I am without it.

Competitiveness doesn't come without a cost. It has led to tunnel vision, preventing me from seeing the forest for the trees. It has provoked countless fights between friends and family, with words and emotions manifesting like unwelcome ghosts. It has caused injury from pushing too hard and not knowing when to ease off the gas pedal. It has spurred me to sound like the smartest person in the room, even when I am not educated on the topic at hand.

Each of the qualities above enable positive action, but lacking control in any one of them can lead to less than ideal results.

The cost of perfection

Imagine the following scenario. Your home world is under attack by a group of vicious aliens from a far-off galaxy. They're hell-bent on wiping our species off the map. All the greatest minds have come together in one room to devise a plan of action. The world depends on them.

Each of them believe they have the perfect solution. None of them can find common ground. For days they engage in discussions over whose plan is the best. Meanwhile, The War Of The Worlds rages on. Buildings are crashing down all around them. The planet is crumbling, and as we look to the greatest minds for help, we are met with indecision. They have yet to find the perfect plan and refuse to make a move.

This is a contrived example of what goes through my mind each time I plan my attack on a goal. It feels productive to consider all possible outcomes. To have all my bases covered. But the truth is that I'm just hiding from the work.

An ambitious goal can draw out the best in us, but if we require a perfect system before we set forth to accomplish it, our feet will never leave the ground. The reality is that the perfect system does not exist. Only the right system for you and your goal, and it will not reveal itself so long as you stand still. So begin. Move forward. Experiment. Fail. Iterate.

Your system is out there waiting to be discovered.

There Is Only Movement

My first experience with a weight room was with my high school baseball team. If schedules permitted, we'd be in there twice a week for a grand total of 45 minutes, and only during the off-season. There was no structure to these sessions. No coaching. There was a white board with some exercises. There was loud music. There was 16-year olds talking about video games. The glory days!

I was good enough to play in college, where the weight room was more of a focal point. I spent countless nights grinding away in a poorly lit, well equipped box with 20 other guys who all shared a common goal: to make it. We shared the same intensity. The same desire to grow physically and mentally. It was a bond I'll never be able to replicate.

We were given a fairly traditional weightlifting protocol. Squats, deadlifts and bench press were buffered with accessory exercises like bicep curls, planks and dumbbell presses. Spend 10 minutes with us and you'd see what we were after. Size. Hypertrophy. Turning boys to men.

Hell, it worked. I put on serious mass in my college years. I remember one afternoon when my mother asked me if I was taking steroids (I wasn't, but my entire outfield was).

We did not pay one ounce of attention to other aspects of the human body. How well could we move? Were we mobile? Could our joints bare the load of the 315 pound back squat we just did? It wasn't that we ignored these concepts. We were ignorant to them. Could you blame us? It wasn't common knowledge. If you were in the weight room on a Thursday night after practice there was only one focus: Getting bigger, faster, stronger.

A few years out of college and I still maintained consistent training habits. My thought process hadn't changed either. At 23 I built a psuedo gym in my parents garage (yes I was living with my parents, bless their hearts). The focus was about strength. Powerlifting my soul into oblivion. Progress came, and so did injuries. There was always something wrong with me. A kink in the neck. Pain in the hip at the bottom of a squat. I figured it was just part of the process.

This went on for years. I never stretched. I barely ever warmed up. I only cared about the working sets. You know, the ones that you can write home about. The PRs. The sets that make you find that one Underoath song that gets your blood going.

Eventually I moved away from my parents house and had to leave the beloved squat rack behind. I always hated public gyms, so the thought of joining one turned me off. Instead I decided to spend time exploring bodyweight training. I figured I could save money and work out in the comfort of my own apartment. Maybe I would learn a thing or two.

This led me to The Bodyweight Warrior, a YouTube channel created by Tom Merrick. Tom opened my eyes to a world outside of traditional weightlifting, and for that I'll be forever greatful. I can confidently say that his work has allowed me to experience and learn from some of the greatest minds on the forefront of human movement.

Through Tom's work I began incorporating "flexibility sessions" into my daily routine. Every morning for 20-30 minutes I'd perform a basic stretching routine before making coffee. Nothing crazy. It consisted of various static poses held for 60-90 seconds. I did this for a few months and noticed some improvements. It urged me to seek out more knowledge.

Eventually I found the work of Ido Portal. If you haven't heard of Ido, go to YouTube and look him up. He's a practitioner of movement in its purest form. It took less than 20 minutes to digest his message and I was hooked. I had never considered movement as essential to the human being. As essential as breathing.

For years I operated under the assumption that barbells and free weight were the only thing that mattered when it came to working out. In fact, I was so hard-headed that I didn't consider any other form of exercise worthy of my time. What I learned was that "working out" is a social construct humans created to fill a space that our modern lifestyle has created. Our ancestors didn't need to work out. They lived a life full of physical activity and movement. They rose with the sun, ran with the wind and slept under the stars.

Now, at the age of 29, my mindset has shifted. Lifting heavier objects is no longer my idea of a man's physical capabilities. Don't get me wrong. Resistance training has its place, but is not the center of the universe. It is simply one piece of the puzzle.

Instead, I am on a quest to improve my capacity to move. I believe this to be a more thoughtful approach to the development of physicality.

It involves asking questions:

  • Why do I feel pain here?
  • What is preventing me from achieving this position?
  • Is it a lack of strength, or flexiblity?

It requires understanding of how the body works at a fundamental level:

  • How do humans move?
  • What is the relationship between muscles and joints?
  • What role does the nervous system play?

These questions lead to new questions. Each day I wake up with a clearer picture of what I am capable of and what I'm not. It is a lifelong pursuit.

"The first and greatest victory is to conquer self."

  • Plato

I am on a quest to close the gap between my abilities and that of my ancestors. We share the same vessel: the human body, and it is capable of so much. If only we give it the proper inputs.

Simplifying

I've self-identified as someone who overcomplicates things. This is most evident in my day job where I stare at a computer and write code. Software developers like me tend to be too clever for their own good. That's why everything we do gets peer reviewed before it goes into production.

I have noticed complexity creep into my physical training practice as well. This might be strange to hear. What's complex about training? You show up. You do the work. You move on, right?

To me it's an RPG. There are skills I'm working on. Each day I show up and execute a plan to level up. The problem is when the plan becomes too ambitious. I try chasing too many skills at once.

The first sign that complexity has found its way into my training is allocation of time. When sessions begin to expand in timeframe, I know I've passed an unsustainable threshold. I can keep it up for a while, but as the weeks go on my energy levels drop. Inevitably my training suffers and I make less progress.

“I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”

  • Bilbo Baggins

I am not able to sustain a training protocol that relies on 4-5 hours of workload each day. There may be some people out there who can. And that's great. But for me, I have other things that need attention.

When my mind catches wind of this, the gears start to turn. Enthusiasm to show up each day fades. I start doubting my efforts. Consistency falls by the wayside. It takes weeks to build a habit, and moments to break it.

Reducing complexity in training protocols

I decided to ask myself what reducing complexity in my training would look like. There's an old Warren Buffet strategy he uses to focus and prioritize his time called The 5/25 Strategy. It came to mind as I performed this thought exercise.

The first step was to write down everything I was doing and everything I wanted to do. Then I crossed off 80% of the list. These items became my "avoid at all costs" list. They don't get my attention until the remaining 20% have been accomplished.

A weight was lifted off of my shoulders. It's not that the 80% percent that was crossed off isn't priority. I want to do those things. I want to do everything! But if everything is a priority, then nothing is. This is the mindset shift I needed.

It's not a race. It's the cultivation of a lifestyle. A sustainable lifestyle. And if I plan to do this for life, then what's the rush? It's better to hone in your focus on 1 thing then lose your focus over 5 things.

I'm looking forward to what comes from this simplification mindset. To make it actionable, I will be breaking my training up into 8-12 week periods. The goal is unbreakable consistency. I will be doing less, but accomplishing more. After the period is up I plan to assess my progress.

  • How do I feel?
  • What have I learned?
  • What improved, and what didn't?

With this information I can plan the next period accordingly. Rinse. Repeat.

Macro Patience, Micro Speed

Buzzwords? Maybe. I wouldn't be surprised, given how widespread Gary Vaynerchuk's message has become over the last few years. I used to consume GaryVee content by the gallon. It wasn't the entrepreneur lifestyle that was attractive. It wasn't the allure of building businesses that lead to riches aplenty. I could give two shits.

I was drawn to his work ethic. Some would call it hustle. Confirmed buzzword. A younger me needed to see that such focus could be deployed in other environments outside of organized sports. So I read, I watched and I listened to the man drive the same message down my throat for weeks and months. Eventually I hopped off his train of content. I took what I needed. Left behind what I didn't.

The biggest takeaway was Macro Patience, Micro Speed. Gary uses this phrase in the context of business development. That is not my arena, but it's such a powerful idea that it trancends into everyday life.

I interpret this phrase as having the courage to pursue difficult things, the intelligence to construct a blueprint to aid you, the unrelenting tenacity to execute it every day, and the fortitude to endure the unattractive timeframe of it all.

Laying out Current Goals

It's April 18th 2020, at 9:15am. I have my coffee next to me. I'm listening to some loony soundscape music on Spotify as part of a "concentration" playlist. It sounds like something Gabe from The Office would make.

"one instant expanded to be the size of the universe."

changes playlist...

Ok. Let's begin.

Goal One: 100 posts

I'd like to have 100 posts on Simple Machine by December 31st, 2020. That's a lofty goal but I think it's achievable. There are 2 weeks left in April, the 4th month of the year. That leaves 8 months to go. We'll say each month has 4.5 weeks in it. Doing some math and that leaves us with roughly 36 weeks. This is the 5th post, which means I need 95 more.

95 posts / 36 weeks = 2.6-ish posts per week.

The driving factor behind this goal is that I still don't really know what Simple Machine is yet. I know that I want to write, because it helps me think. It clarifies my thoughts. That in itself is enough to prompt this goal. But I believe there is something bigger for SM. I believe there is value here for others. Showing up each day to write will help me discover it.

Goal Two: Pass CSCS Exam

The National Strength & Conditioning Association provides a Strength and Conditioning Certification to those who can pass the exam. The goal is to sit for and pass the exam by end-of-year.

To prepare for the exam I am devouring Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning at a rate of 1-2 hours per day. It's refreshing material to study, as the last few years of my life have been focused on software development.

I'm also experimenting with two study techniques that I've never used before:

  • Cornell Notes Method
  • Spaced Repetition

I'll write a post about these techniques in the future.

Goal Three: Head-To-Toe

The first movement goal is the head-to-toe. I'm at the point in my mobility practice where I've realized that training for the sake of training is not fun and, because of that, is not going to be maintainable. With that being said, I've started to get more specific with my training by working towards movements and positions. This makes training sessions feel more like an RPG. Grinding for skills.

I've gone back and forth on what to train for over the last few months, but I've landed on the head-to-toe because I believe it be a foundational position that's pretty straightforward to chase. Also, hamstrings are a weakpoint of mine. Big weakpoint. I'm using Emmet Louis's head-to-toe program to get there.

Since I don't meet the prerequisites to begin training for it, I have to focus on the forward fold. The programming for the forward fold looks like this:

  • 3x90s Calf Stretch
  • 3x10 Single Leg Good Morning
  • 3x10 Jefferson Curl

And this is done every 3 days. Straightforward. I like it. So, the goal is head-to-toe, but for now it's out of my mind. What's on my mind is showing up every 3 days and progressing the forward fold. We'll check in down the road.

Goal Four: 30s Handstand

The final goal on the list is holding a handstand for 30 seconds. I was making great progress on my handstand in 2019 before a medical issue sidelined me. I picked things back up again in late March. Most gains were gone. It is what it is.

I'm starting from scratch. Wrist strength and mobility is priority. Gotta keep the wrists healthy and strong if I'm going to progress this.

The programming is simple. 2 days on / 1 day off. The training session usually takes about an hour. Of that hour, 40 minutes or so are dedicated to shoulder and wrist prep. The last 15-20 are chest-to-wall and back-to-wall handstands.

Progress is slow here. I hope to move away from the wall in few months.

And more

I have more things I want to accomplish right now, but I don't think they warrant their own section. The four listed above are my main focus and what get my attention before anything else. If I can hit on these, everything else is gravy.

✌️

Expecting Progress

"Happiness = Reality - Expectations" - Elon Musk

I enjoy listening to podcasts. I have a few in my core rotation. A few that I usually skip (I should unsubscribe to these). A few that I test drive. These either come on recommendation, or as a way of buffering a mental model of a new thing I'm learning.

One such podcast that I'm test driving is Handstand Cast,put on by Emmet Louis and Mikael Kristiansen. I don't know much about Mikael, but I've followed Emmet's work for some time. In Episode 2: Coaching Handbalance, Emmet shares a nugget of gold:

“Out of ten workouts, one will be amazing. You will be on fire: new things, everything feels better, longer hold times. It’ll be great. Then 2-3, almost 30% of your workouts out of 10 will be shit. On paper you might get your hold times, but they’ll feel terrible, heavy. You’ll be distracted, unable to concentrate, whatever. Then the other 6-7 of that 10, you’ll go in, nothing remarkable happens. You won’t even remember them, as nothing remarkable happens. It’s like your bus ride to school, or work. You get on the bus, you ride to school, you don’t even remember what happened, when the dog got on the bus. That kind of thing. But those ones put the money in the bank, so to speak, and slowly get better over time.”

In my experience, this is a critical lesson. Not just in physical training, but in any pursuit. If you have picked a goal for yourself, and have a coordinated plan of attack to reach said goal, then its high time to put the goal out of your mind. Show up. Do the work. Remove expectations from the equation. James Clear's essay on Systems vs. Goals expands on this:

Furthermore, goals create an “either-or” conflict: either you achieve your goal and are successful or you fail and you are a disappointment. You mentally box yourself into a narrow version of happiness.

I've fallen into this trap countless times. I still do. Immediate gratification is so easily found in today's world. Desire of an outcome leads to suffering each day until the outcome is realized.

Execute your system. Progress is just as a calibration tool.

Puzzle Pieces

Last night in the shower I started thinking about my current mobility program. It's been two weeks with it. An online program I paid for. 6 days a week. Coaching support. It's good value without a gym.

This is a change from the last few months. I had been programming my own mobility work using knowledge I've attained over time. It was a productive few months. I made progress in certain areas, but progress is always slow. The brain hates that.

A common theme arises a few weeks after I switch up my routine. The brain starts asking questions:

  • Is this enough?
  • Could we be making more progress doing something else?
  • Are we pushing too hard?

It's that dreaded feeling that you're not doing enough, or you're doing something wrong altogether. I've come to think that the underlying threat is this: we hate the thought of wasted time.

A pursuit requires a significant amount of your time. The quantity of which matters as much as the quality. Time is our most precious resource. You can never hold it for longer than a second before it slips through your fingers. You can't get it back once it's gone. Make the most of it. We've heard these clichés a million times and more. It makes sense that we feel this way.

But a pursuit is a puzzle. A unique puzzle made special for you, with no instructions or time to complete.

Unfortunately you don't have all the pieces, so you go looking elsewhere. Most of the pieces can be found for free. The internet is an incredible bucket of puzzle pieces. All shapes and sizes.

Some you have to pay for. These are the pieces you consider to be most valuable to your puzzle. They are the pieces you think you need to finish. They might be, but usually they aren't. If you're lucky enough you'll buy a piece that doesn't fit at all, but instead makes you realize you had that piece all along.

Puzzles take time, and even if the piece in your hand doesn't fit, your next choice will be that much more precise.

Training and COVID-19

In 2020 we're dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. This virus is sweeping through every country on the planet and forcing us to self-isolate. In general, this sucks. But from a training perspective it doesn't. Here's why.

Being stuck inside with no gym means you have to get creative. It means you have to explore other training methodologies.

  • Bodyweight
  • Calisthenics
  • General mobility/flexibilty work

These are things that your average gym-goer probably doesn't allow much thought to. I spent over a decade in and out of gyms and never did. It wasn't until I moved away from my parents house a few years ago, where my lovely garage gym was at, that I had to make a decision about what I would do next.

Would I join a typical globo-style gym? Nah. Would I explore the world of crossfit? Looked cool, but $$$. Then I ran into bodyweight training. Which exposed glaring weaknesses in my mobility. Which led me to Functional Range Conditioning. Which exposed me to an incredible network of people on the internet sharing evidence-based techniques for improving range of motion.

This was all it took for me to go from someone who never paid attention to my own movement capacities to someone who is obsessed with their movement capacities. It changed my definition of what it means to be a healthy and athletic human being.

If your training relies on a large amount of equipment, and you don't have your own gym at home, you might be stuck. You might be experiencing confusion and uncertainty. Large upticks in consumption with little physical activity.

Adapt to the situation. Adjust your thought process.

If you want to make progress somewhere, start by looking at your ability to move. Everything is connected. Improving movement capacity in isolation will make you a better human when you get back in the gym.

Pursuits

There is something poetic about pursuing goals without letting the world in on the journey. It’s actually quite stoic. Think of learning to play the guitar every night for years. Alone in your room. One day you emerge with a skill that nobody knew you had. They’ll say, “I didn’t know you could play the guitar?”

I believe that pursuing a goal is a private matter. No explanation needed. But a pursuit of any kind is still a pursuit. And there are metaphysical properties that revolve around those who choose to embark on such a quest.

The lessons learned are valuable, whether you learn to play a guitar or decide you want to be a master hand balancer. These lessons bind us together, and teach us how to face a common foe: resistance.

This is the pièce de ré·sis·tance of Simple Machine. To document a journey. To reveal the lessons learned, the failures experienced and the progress made. To inspire and educate.

There are those who will find themselves reading Simple Machine because they share many of the same pursuits as myself. I expect that to be the case 9 times out of 10. But I also hope that this project will reach others who care not about the outcomes of my pursuits, but the journey of pursuit itself.