One day a few weeks ago, I came up up with a workout. This isn’t unusual; it’s kind of my job. I did the workout. Then I had a group of strong female athletes do it. Then I had a strong male athlete do it. Then I had the Coyote Point Kettlebell Club do it. I took notes and feedback. I tweaked. I got better at coaching it and describing it. Then I worked on how to program it for my clients. The workout is called “Green Eggs and H.A.M.” and it goes like this.

  1. Grab two bells one size down from your “showing off weight.”

  2. Do 10 double cleans.

  3. Rack carry “some distance”

  4. Do 10 double cleans.

  5. Rack carry back.

  6. Rest for as long as you need to.

  7. Repeat one more time.

This is my job. On paper it looks like a workout. But as I was in a rather contemplative mood, I realized that workouts are more than sets and reps. Workouts are an experience. Sometimes shared. Sometimes solo. But always with a sense of purpose and ritual. My bother (an actor) and I had a conversation about it this weekend and we noted that my work has more in common with performance art that I had ever really considered. Ray Johnson, meet Dan John.

Rituals

What do you do when you go to church? Shower. Put on church clothes. Go to a certain building at a certain time. Listen to certain expert talk. Sing something you’ve sung 10,000 times or perform a series of actions that you’ve performed 10,000 times before. Catch up with people you’ve known a while. Leave at a certain time.

What do you do when you go to workout? Put on workout clothes. Go to a certain building at a certain time. Listen to a certain expert talk (me). Do something you’ve done 10,000 times (push, pull, hinge, squat, carry, twist). Catch up with people you’ve known a while. Shower. Leave at a certain time.

Every human endeavor has ritual or ceremony to it. Some are obvious, like a wedding. But others are not, like sharing a meal with friends. I was doing both at Kelly John’s wedding two weeks ago when I had a conversation with Sean Greeley. I took him to In N’ Out for the first time. I told him what to order, he told me about the comforts of growing up in the Catholic Church. Without the meaning we ascribe to weddings or meals, it’s just two people who like spending time with each other spending a boatload of other people’s money, or people consuming calories in the same room. The ceremony tells us what we are witnessing or doing is important. It informs us how to act and what to expect.

The Fog of Progress

Nothing about training your body is fast. In fact, when it comes to the human body only bad things happen quickly. It’d be easy to say that the problem is patience, but it’s more than that. When you start a training program, progress may not even be measurable by the tools you are used to. When my female clients start training with me, the scale usually goes up as the jean sizes go down. for some women this is no less than an existential crisis. They have ritually weighted themselves every day since puberty. It takes a hell of a lot to convince a woman who has seen herself as a “120lb” woman that she will be fitter, healthier, leaner, and hotter at 130lbs because the jeans size number takes so long to catch up. But even deeper than that, habit coach Rob Umfress told me once that he doesn’t think the human brain is even built to notice slow, subtle changes. It can only pick out big changes amidst the background noise of sensory input. So without truly objective results or a level of minute awareness, what hope does we have of maintaining motivation when we are working so hard at something that might not have ever worked for us before? How do we know how to act and what to expect? Why, rituals of course.

Secret Ceremonies

What’s the secret to Green Eggs and H.A.M.? It feels like a workout. It feels like you’ve done something. Do I have my clients do it every day? Of course not; it’s way to hard. But it’s important for all of us to feel like we are making progress, even if it’s just ritualistic. The human body likes slow, but we like fast. The human body likes easy, but hard makes us feel like we are doing something. I recommend SATs every few weeks to actually track progress, but I think that clients need to feel like they are making progress more often than that. Workouts like Green Eggs and H.A.M. or even just an Easy Strength with 6 heavy singles have all the usual indications that we are pushing hard, without putting us into a deep recovery hole. Plus, they’re fun! Everyone remembers the challenging days. We all sit around later and “discuss the hunt.” These are the rituals that tell us to expect progress while keeping us on the consistent path to results.