Pandora and Exercise

You use Pandora, right?

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If you don’t, I’ll explain: Pandora is a music experience that allows you to customize your listening. You pick an artist who has songs that you like and you then create a radio station named for that artist. You will be offered music from that artist but also music from other artists (whether you are familiar with them or not) that is very similar to your original choice.

Pandora is able to do this because behind the scenes they have figured out a way to look at patterns in music performance—patterns in lyrics, patterns in rhythms, patterns in performance style. If you simply pick a Pandora station and never interact with it, you may only like half of the songs you hear.

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Episode 51 of Gray Cook Radio

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With Pandora, you “thumb up” or “thumb down” songs depending on whether or not you like them. Once you tell Pandora your musical tastes, Pandora will start to play your music. Pandora makes note of your choices and refines the information.

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The title is Pandora and Exercise, but I’m not telling you to listen to music while you work out.

I’m saying that Pandora does a better job of entertaining than we, as trainers and rehabilitation professionals, do of developing your movement. That’s because Pandora listens to your patterns and refines the information.

Pandora’s process also has its pitfalls. If you’re too picky and refine the information too much, you will not have a rich variety of music and may never be exposed to potential future favorites. If you don’t interact with Pandora at all, you won’t get much more than is currently being offered to you on satellite radio.

But if you give Pandora input and don’t try to completely control it, your experience will introduce you to music by other artists. It will give you opportunities to create more stations and further refine them. What if we treated exercise the same way?

In the book, The Rise of Superman, Steven Kotler takes us on a journey with action and adventure athletes. These are the men and women who are breaking records in their respective sports at an accelerated rate, as has never been witnessed before.

Are records being broken simply because it’s a new sport and there’s a lot of improvement to be made?

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Not necessarily. Think about the way a snowboarder, surfer, rock climber or skateboarder might practice. It looks a lot more like play than it does sets, repetitions and focused training based on body parts and metabolism. We don’t have to beg these individuals to practice. They play and in their play, they will “thumb up” and “thumb down” certain activities. They will want to reinforce some activities by practicing.

What’s the difference in play and practice?

Practice is when we pick one aspect of what we’ve been playing and expose ourselves to greater failure opportunity. It could be in a risky move or it could be in the presence of an expert. We can imagine the skateboarder pushing their own limits, the martial artist throwing a punch or kick in front of a master, or the weightlifter getting real-time feedback and then applying that feedback to the next repetition.

Anytime we expose ourselves to a master or a challenge, we’re practicing. We took that object of play and asked for more failure opportunity. If the failure opportunity you get is not survivable, you won’t be here tomorrow. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. But please bite off something that will require nothing less than full engagement. If you’re disengaged or detached from the activity you’re doing, you cannot get into a flow state.

Flow is where records are broken and the intrinsic value of movement can be realized.

The extrinsic value of movement is looking better, feeling better and having people pat you on the back and say, “Wow, you’re looking great.” The intrinsic value that the action-adventure sports prize is complete engagement in the moment—a mind-body experience where there is no past, there is no future and there is no internal critic.

When we talk to professional athletes about the flow state, they don’t necessarily talk about themselves as superhuman. They just say everyone else seeming to be in slow motion. If we looked at your movement life as three slices of pie intersecting in a circle, we could call the slices play, practice and training.

One of the biggest mistakes we’ve made as fitness professionals, performance professionals and even rehabilitation professionals is that we have focused so much on the metrics of training—the sets, the repetitions, the periodization—that we’ve forgotten that the main reason people move outside of simple preservation is to play or become engaged in their environment.

Once engaged, they practice to intensify engagement. They go down the rabbit hole and, whether they realize it or not, practice seeking greater opportunities for feedback. That feedback usually comes at the end of failure rather than at the end of success. If the failure is survivable, and if the failure is acceptable, then we can get better every day. Improvement is the result of gauging your skill to a challenge at the “possible-but-far” edge of your potential.

Functional Movement Screening and the varying levels of performance testing can expose you to failure or to metrics and numbers below the norm, indicating possible failure. In those endeavors, we only injure your pride (and only then if you’re self-absorbed in metrics). Our goal is not to injure your knee or your back or see you lose valuable training time because you didn’t gauge your skill to your challenge in such a way to grow your skill with acceptable risk.

Since the late 1990’s, we’ve been focusing on the best way to develop and forecast this skill:challenge ratio. If you think about it, the SAID principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand) can be divided right down the middle with specific adaptation being the role of the organism and imposed demand being the role of the environment. I will offer two enlightening points here.

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First, when we seek to develop the appropriate skill:challenge ratio for ourselves or for somebody who has hired us to do it for them, what systematic tool do we use to find out whether the bottleneck is with the organism or the environment?

Don’t take the cop-out answer and say, “Oh, we’re going to work on both.” Surgeons, paramedics, pilots and umpires make ‘yes’ and ‘no’ decisions every day.

As fitness and rehabilitation professionals, I implore you. If you don’t know which is more broken—the organism or the environment—you’re not professionally capable to make a suggestion. I think we are paid to be snipers, not carpet bombers.

Second, if you do know which one is broken, what are the systematic categories and vital signs within each category you will consider to make sure that you are doing no harm?

It is both refreshing and enlightening to embark on a journey. The journey I am on says that I cannot do this—physical development—better than nature. Natural selection has been working in the background for all of our existence. I don’t think I can develop you better than the natural environment.

My role as a professional is simply to develop you safer and faster. To do that, we will need a systematic approach and we will need to identify vital biomarkers at each level of your development. With those, we can point you effectively at a skill:challenge ratio optimized to get you out of your head and into your body . . . and out of the extrinsic motivators of fitness and into the intrinsic motivators of fitness.

Please read the book, The Rise of Superman. It will help you personally and professionally. I could not give it a higher recommendation.

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