Gymbox member Genevieve Teevan interviewed New York fitness scholar Daniel Kunitz, author of Why the Pain, What’s the Gain? The quest for extreme fitness, to find out how if exercise really can make you not only smarter, but if pushing yourself a little harder every day can help you achieve the Greek statuesque physique you always wanted.
A lot of what we do at Gymbox meets your definition of New Frontier Fitness (NFF), but how are we smarter than gym users 20 years ago?
New Frontier Fitness refers to various fitness phenomena that have arisen in the last 15 years: among them CrossFit, Parkour, Acroyoga, Strongman, new-style calisthenics, obstacle racing, as well as functional strength training like weightlifting and powerlifting. Some of its features include a holistic approach to fitness (one that includes how we eat, sleep, and think as well as how we exercise), functional movements and an embrace of athleticism (rather than mere activity).
You claim this new frontier fitness will make us smarter and better at our jobs. How does that skill transfer work when our jobs aren’t physical?
Exercise of all sorts has been shown repeatedly to improve cognitive performance – in other words it makes you smarter. But skill-based efforts, like the Olympic lifts or gymnastics, make greater demands on the central nervous system than other types of exercise – they are brain workouts, if you will.
If we want to be smarter, wouldn’t we be better off playing chess or learning a foreign language?
I don’t think it’s a matter of choosing between intellectual activity and physical activity, but rather using each to enhance the other. I spend far more time reading each day than I do working out, but the exercise I get is, I believe, crucial to the quality of my intellectual life. If you spend all of your time studying while sedentary, then the cognitive benefits that you gain will be undercut by your physical deterioration, and that includes the deterioration of your brain.
You say NFF training is geared towards real-life situations, but when have you really thought, ‘Phew, thank goodness I’m so fit’?
Numerous small instances come up all the time: being able to move a heavy sofa out of my apartment, hoisting kegs of beer into ice buckets without aid, entertaining my niece and nephew with handstands, or lifting my girlfriend overhead at the beach. In the six years I spent at my most recent job, I was never ill and never had to take a sick day. Is this due purely to my fitness level? I don’t know, but I do know that none of my colleagues had the same record. Beyond these, being confident physically, feeling strong, changes one’s attitude toward every real-life situation.
I’ve always considered practising my favourite sport, tennis, quite separate from the more mundane fitness training I do at the gym. How will learning CrossFit skills like the muscle-up or Olympic weight-lifting moves make us better at other sports?
High-skill movements like the Olympic lifts require exceptional neuro-muscular integration, meaning the ability to control muscles. They increase both muscle recruitment (your ability to cause seldom used muscles to fire) and proprioceptive control. In other words, they improve your ability to move. They will also make you stronger.
You really believe in ‘no pain, no gain’. How do you psych yourself up to push into that pain zone and then to stay there?
As I discuss in the book, pushing into the pain zone is a learned skill, mostly psychological. Try to push a little harder each day and to recognise that you are capable of enduring far, far more metabolic pain than you think you can.
You say that gyms sell the promise of a better looking body, but the actual satisfaction of exercising is in the acquisition of skills. How do we know that we’re not just trumpeting fitness skills to hide our narcissism?
We are most certainly narcissists! There is nothing wrong with wanting to look better or wanting to show it off. However, having looks be your only, or your ultimate, goal in exercising seems to me to be not the most effective strategy for the vast majority of people. First, there is the question of what happens once you’ve achieved the goal: what motivates you to keep going after you’ve attained the physique you want. Second, there is the fact that we all age and lose our ideal physiques, and so what is to keep us going once we’re on the downside of that slope. Third, there is the issue of whose ideal do you want to attain, whose physique do you want? What is held up as the ideal for most Westerners is a version of the mesomorphic physique, but most of us are not mesomorphs and no amount of training will change that. The most efficient and effective way to attain your ideal body is to train with performance goals foremost. It follows that when you are functioning as well as possible at any given moment, your body is going to looks its best, rather than like other people’s bodies.
You write about the Muscle Beach crowd being desperate for attention on Instagram and YouTube. Why are NFF-ers such show-offs?
The Muscle Beach crowd I describe are performance artists – they’re performers, and so it’s their job to be seen. I see them as being like actors, offering up their performances, rather than mere show-offs.
You describe the ideal body of a Greek statue as attainable. How can we avoid feeling miserable if we don’t have the discipline (or time) to reach that ideal?
First you need to recognise that Greek statues idealise one specific body type, which I mentioned above, the mesomorph. Most people simply aren’t genetically that type, so for most people there’s no reason to be depressed, since we can’t look like that no matter what we do. Focus on your performance – how much you lift, how fast you run. Focus on whether you are improving these markers as well as on your body composition: are you getting leaner, adding muscle? If the trend is in the right direction, that’s all that should matter. Then enjoy the process, since it will last the rest of your life and it’s all you have.
How do you avoid getting bored once you’ve reached your peak fitness?
You can always improve. There are always new skills to master and weaknesses to work on. I’ve never met someone able to achieve “peak fitness” who got bored with the process. It’s usually people who don’t progress who get bored.
Why should the average person strive for extreme fitness?
I’m not sure we need to strive for extreme fitness; I think we should strive to consistently improve our fitness level. Peaking is a concept borrowed from the world of competition, and it is a state that usually only lasts a brief time, when one actually competes. If you’re not competing, don’t worry about it – just try to be a little bit better each day. Doing so will be its own reward.
Why should we follow the ancient Greeks and not divide our workouts into leg day, upper body, cardio, etc.?
To quote CrossFit founder Greg Glassman, segmented training results in segmented performance. Only inside the gym are efforts divided in that way; outside, we have to run after an assailant before subduing him or her (if we’re a member of a police force); we have to carry our injured friend off the mountain or out of the burning building, which means using a complex of muscles as well as cardio; we have to lift the luggage and carry it. Generally, I like to use my upper and lower body in concert, rather than in herky-jerky steps, but if you are training them separately, you are not training to move them well together. But also, by isolating various muscle groups you will inevitably miss the important ones (for instance, all the little stabilising muscles in the back or shoulders), so again, it’s a less effective way of training. There is also a lot of evidence that many people are bored by the routine of chest and arms followed by legs and back, etc. Why not mix it up?
You say that 1980s aerobics was a ‘feminist phenomenon’ because it saw women asserting control over their bodies and rejecting the belief that exercise was masculinizing, but how can women (and some men) separate the empowering aspects of fitness from the pressure to be thin and to conform to a bodily ideal that is difficult to attain?
I think you’ve answered your own question: fitness empowers you. If you are strong, if you are much fitter in every respect than the thin people in magazine adverts, then you will not feel the same pressure to conform. You have something they don’t.
You say ‘I find groups far more conducive to giggles than to meditation.’ Any tips on shushing our eye-rolling inner sceptic so that we can get the benefits of yoga and group fitness activities?
Yes: give in, submit to the process even if you feel uncomfortable – that’s a huge part of the battle. By submitting to the process, I mean that you should suspend your scepticism long enough to give it an honest try. And that you should look objectively at your scepticism: is it what you think it is or is it just a mask for your fears?
You describe how, in the 1980s, for women, gyms seemed like a safe alternative to meeting men in bars in part because their ‘better lighting meant you could at least see the predators’. Gymbox is dark and has a nightclub feel. Is that also popular now in the US or are we just shy and inhibited in the UK?
I think disco-style gyms are fairly common in the States too. Some of the boot camps use them and many of the cycle gyms are dark with disco lights and blasting music. It seems that gym culture has matured to the point where you can find one to suit almost any taste.