Broken Knees…

As a relatively fit guy, I often get asked questions about getting into better shape.  Over the years, I’ve learned to take a pause before answering.  I used to think I had to come up with some great ethereal answer.  Some subconscious secret that I needed to dig out of my mind.  The pause that I take now is about telling myself to calm down and accept that this person may not be looking for the real answer.  They may be looking for me to affirm what they already believe in.  It’s incredibly frustrating for people to earnestly seek out advice, you give them sound advice based on experience/education, and they still do what they wanted to do anyway.  Psychologists call this Cognitive Bias:

As defined by Wikipedia –

A cognitive bias is a systematic pattern of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment.  Individuals create their own ‘subjective social reality’ from their perception of the input.  An individual’s construction of social reality, not the objective input, may dictate their behaviour in the social world.  Thus, cognitive biases may sometimes lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or what is broadly called irrationality.”

Irrationality.  It’s crazy.  I lost 100 lbs.  No Trainers, No Doctors, No Dietitians.  Just learning, work ethic, and persistence.  With no direct guidance I made a ton of mistakes. Profuse overtraining, poor dietary strategies, performing exercises at an intensity that my body wasn’t ready for, and pushing through injuries far too often.  I’ve run into my own limitations many times and it hasn’t been until the last 5 years that I have really learned to slow down and do what makes sense.  Slowing down and really staying within my limitations has really made exercise more enjoyable and I am leaner and more athletic than I’ve ever been.  However, telling people to slow down and focus on simple, yet foundational, aspects of their health just doesn’t have the ‘wow’ factor that, “You too can train like a Special Operations Warrior!”, does.  It seems so counter intuitive.  I was an Army Green Beret, I did MMA Training, and I did Crossfit as well.  With all that and the many hours I spent working out in my youth, you would think that the best shape of my life would have come during one of those periods.  I remember getting out of the military and having many of my fellow soldiers warn me about how ‘out-of-shape’ I was going to be when I left the Army:

1 – When you workout on your own since age 10, by the time you are in your late 20’s it’s an ingrained habit.  As long as I have the ability to move, I will exercise to improve.

2 – If getting ‘out of shape’ means my knees don’t hurt when I squat, my overall mobility is light years ahead of where I was as a soldier, I’m 30 lbs lighter, and I’m more athletic than a lot of kids in their late teens, then I’ll take being ‘out of shape’.

In the last few years I’ve realized that our popular media has created an image for exercise that says the harder it is, the more ‘in-shape’ you are.  If your routine doesn’t leave you huffing and puffing then you didn’t really do anything.  Oh, and then there is the holy grail of exercise, running.  I don’t hate running, but I put in so many miles as a kid and so many miles as a soldier, I think I’ve run enough for three lifetimes.  I did long runs.  In the Army, 5 miles was a short distance.  My knees were in perpetual pain up until about age 30 (when I left the Army).  For years my solution to pain was to tough it out.  Why?  Being able to run far was the pinnacle of fitness.  Being able to do long sessions of High Intensity training was the pinnacle of fitness.  Nevermind being able to walk up stairs without pain in my knees.  Nevermind being able to kneel without excruciating pain in my knees.  Nevermind lacking the flexibility/mobility to get in and out of an up-armored vehicle with 60-100 lbs of gear on, with grace and ease, and my knees not feel like there going to explode because I’ve been sitting in the back of the Humvee bouncing around for 2 hours sweating and unable to stretch my long legs…  And my knees hurt, but that’s okay, because if we strip down to shorts and a t-shirt, in the middle of a gunfight, I can run far.

Medic Kneel

When you are a soldier, a firefighter/emt, a police officer, and any number of tactical or physical professions, you have to be able to kneel.  When we ran training scenarios in the medic course, I often had to treat patients on my knees while they were on the ground.  A scenario might take me 20-30 minutes continuous to treat and stabilize a patient.  In that time, while I’m trying to concentrate on saving someone’s life, I’m also hoping we don’t receive enemy fire because my knees feel as though they may explode. It was excruciating.  Sitting on a plane was excruciating.   Driving for a long time was excruciating.  Knees bent for a longtime was excruciating.  Why was the military having us run excessively and sometimes run with heavy packs on, yet we weren’t doing any mobility work or flexibility work to preserve the knees that would allow us to do our job?  

When we exercise, the point should be to move better and with greater overall ease, right?  I know you run everyday because it feels good (I guess) and you feel like you did something but, can you crawl around on the floor and chase your toddler?  Can your ‘keyboard’ hands and wrists handle it?  If your son or daughter asked you to play catch, can your ‘desk worker’ shoulders handle it?  Can you kneel down to get something that rolls under your bed or dresser without looking like a baby deer because you’re ‘marathon-ready-but-I-sit-in-a-chair-all-day’ body can’t handle the challenging positions that are just normal human movements?

The big secret I give to people when they ask about getting in shape is to start with some simple mobility exercises to open their spine, hips, and shoulders.  I ask them to do some things for their wrists and ankles as well.  Then I tell them to walk more.  It’s called preparation and just moving more.  Objectively, you have to do it to be better prepared to move well.  Especially in a sedentary culture where sitting is the norm.  It’s an underwhelming recommendation to someone who is regularly inundated with messages of going harder and faster to be ‘better’.  We are constantly being sold the next program that’s going to make you a beast.  However, these simple foundational movements are things that have a rational carry over to the everyday things that we do in life.  Shouldn’t we want to get better at those things? You know, the essentials.  When you stop breathing hard, doing exercises that don’t make sense, and may actually hurt you, we can have a logical conversation about this.  However, I’ll need you to let go of your cognitive biases.

Lots of sarcasm in this one, I know.  I’m sorry (not really).  Much more coming on this topic.

Until then…

Dream Big!  Think Critically!  Work Hard!


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