The other week, I got a drop in to my Booty Camp class. She was young, slender, already warmed up, and ready to go at 5:45am on a Monday. I gave mer my schpeel about the class, “80% yoga, 20% picking up heavy things” and she looked freaked out when I handed her a foam roller. “Like, what kind of yoga?”

“It’s not really yoga. It’s just movement prep. Getting the body comfortable being in positions and generating tension. It’s easy stuff. We’re going to spend the next 15-20 minutes getting into a holding a squat.”

The middle-aged woman to her left demonstrated a rockbottom, perfect squat, “See? Easy!”

“I can’t squat, so I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t squat.”

And with that, the young lady went downstairs and hopped on a treadmill.

As I have been in this industry and grown more frustrated with it, I think there is a fundamental disconnect. It’s taken me a while (and some heavy-duty graduate school research) to figure out what the disconnect is, but I think I’m slowly realizing that the problem is motivation. And I don’t mean “ra-ra” and “you go girl!” I mean the “why” we do what we do. Why do you go to the gym?

Why People Go

Most people go to the gym to “put in their time.” They go for an hour so they don’t have to feel guilty about not going. It doesn’t matter what they do and the only evidence they need to avoid another 24 hours of guilt is that they got sweaty. Most people know just enough to select the exercises that they are already pretty good at so that they feel competent enough to keep coming back and improving in that narrow range. Men bench. Women stretch. And when they stop getting better, they keep doing those same exercises just to not get any worse. Because the reason they are there isn’t to get better at anything, it’s to not feel guilty. And most people who don’t go to the gym are not any different than the people who do, they just haven’t had the requisite amount of guilt heaped on them by society to overcome their fear of looking foolish or fat in spandex.

What You’re Really Saying

The young lady who dropped into my class didn’t feel guilty. She put in her time and she wasn’t fat. By society’s math, she was doing fine. However, I want read what she said one more time.

“I can’t squat, so I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t squat.”

Now I’m going to change the verb.

“I can’t read, so I’m pretty sure I shouldn’t read.”

If you met a person over the age of 7 who couldn’t read, I hope you would be horrified. If you were a generous person I hope you would help them find literacy classes or maybe even volunteer your time to help them learn this critical life skill. You’d probably get resistance:

“I don’t have the time to learn.”

“I just never learned as a child and it’s too hard to learn now.”

“I’m getting by just fine.”

“I can’t get to a class that far away.”

“Plenty of people don’t know how.”

“Just because it’s easy for you doesn’t mean it’ll be easy for me.”

“Of course you think it’s important, you do it for a living.”

If you are an empathetic person, you’ll understand this resistance, but I doubt it would sway your insistence that this person learn to read. You know how important literacy is; the world of opportunity that it opens up and the richness that it imparts to everyone’s life. I bet you cannot even imagine a life without this crucial skill.

So for the love of puppies and rainbows, hear us when I and everyone who has dedicated their career to the fields of health, medicine, fitness, psychology, sport, physical therapy and nutrition tell you: movement is a life skill. If you find that you cannot squat, you should be just as horrified as discovering that you cannot read.

It’s Not Working Out

Kelly Starret has a demonstration he likes to give to new trainees. He pins their shoulder blade and examines their passive range of shoulder rotation. It’s not uncommon for untrained individuals to have 0 degrees of internal and external rotation (most people make this severe deficiency up with trunk flexion and extension). “What if you had zero degrees of elbow flexion? Your arm would always be straight and you’d have to feed yourself by throwing food at your face. Everyone would laugh at you.” Kelly’s point isn’t that you’re hopelessly broken; it’s that you can fix it. Usually in less than 10 minutes a day of deliberate practice. And if you had to throw food at your own face to feed yourself, wouldn’t you take those 10 minutes?

This “working out” business clearly isn’t working out for us. We have people going to the gym for 7-8 hours a week who can’t squat or rotate their shoulder through a normal range of motion. We need a new “why.” Instead of going to the gym to work out, try to just enjoy getting better at something. Dedicate some time to improving how you move. If you’ve never done it, squat. If you have, squat for a few minutes. If you can do that, squat with some load. Training doesn’t have to be a part time job. It doesn’t even have to be a hobby. It’s just movement. If you’re getting better at moving, you’re doing something right! It doesn’t matter how long you spent at the gym, how much you sweat, or even how slowly you’re getting better. Improvement is the only thing that matters! You can go back to your life, guilt-free and confident that the training was worth your time. So stop watching the clock and ask yourself, “why am I here?”