To figure out statistics when n=1, the blog takes a weird autobiographical turn.
In 2019, UC Berkeley switched its payroll system, changing my life forever. Because we can’t have nice things at state universities, switching the payroll system broke everything. W2s were wrong, direct deposits went missing, and my gym membership was canceled.
I had casually exercised since college. I’d go to the gym and use the treadmill or elliptical or bike. I’d run through some weight machines. I never knew what I was doing, but it felt like a good stress reliever and something I should do. At Berkeley, I paid to use the campus gym, which was adequate but annoyingly crowded. I’d have to find the right half-hour to go, or else I’d be waiting for undergraduates to finish whatever Netflix they were watching on the treadmill.
But upon the payroll switch, my membership was canceled and I couldn’t get in. I tried a couple of ways to fix it, but, like most similar endeavors at Berkeley, this proved Kafkaesque. Since I hadn’t been thrilled at the campus gym anyway, I decided to check out some other options.
There were three private gyms equidistant to my house. An Equinox, an Orange Theory, and a CrossFit gym. I’d heard wonderful things about the eucalyptus-scented towels at the Equinox. And I had heard horror stories about CrossFit. I figured I’d go check them all out to see for myself.
At the CrossFit gym, I was met by a friendly coach who encouraged me to try for a month. “You’ll be very sore, but it’s great.” Everyone I respected told me not to do CrossFit. The exercises are too high impact. I would get injured. It was a cult. The contrast between Coach Rebecca’s enthusiasm and my friends’ extreme negativity intrigued me. I figured what the hell, I’ll try the crazy thing first and reward myself with eucalyptus towels if it doesn’t work out.
So I signed up for their “On Ramp” classes and gave it a go. The On Ramp was a series of private lessons to teach me the various movements done in CrossFit. There were so many movements! And I was terrible at all of them! I tried the CrossFit Baseline workout: it was a sprint to complete 500 meters on the rowing machine, 40 Air Squats, 30 Sit-Ups, 20 Push-Ups, and 10 Pull-Ups as fast as possible. A reasonable time would be under 5 minutes. But I couldn’t even do these movements properly. My hips and ankles were so inflexible that I couldn’t reach the bottom of a squat. I had to squat to a box, do push-ups on an incline, and substitute ring rows for pull-ups. Even with these modifications, the workout took me 8 minutes.
I’m not exactly sure what possessed me, but I immediately decided to go all in on CrossFit. I didn’t have the aptitude for it at all. But I convinced myself I would learn something from being terrible.
This week on the blog, I’m going to discuss what I learned. Among many lessons, I learned that even in the middle of a midlife crisis, you don’t stay terrible if you keep after something. And I don’t mean this in a self-helpy sort of way. I think this is nearly a theorem. In the case of fitness:
“Have a person work through the full range of motion of fundamental movement patterns under heavy loads. Have them slowly progress by increasing the load over time. Then this person’s performance will improve, and they will become more resistant to injury.”
There are annoying caveats with this “theorem.” Not everyone will get better at the same rate. Not everyone will reach the same performance level. Injuries will still happen. But the fact that there are so many caveats is also why I am fascinated. On the one hand, the general paradigm of “progressive overload” can be applied to so many things people do. On the other hand, trying to evaluate how this works through a “science-based” lens reveals a bunch of defects in our scientific rituals.
So yeah, the blog will take a terrifying autobiographical turn this week. But hey, IT’S A BLOG! Isn’t that what blogs are for? And moreover, my point will be to convince you that I’m not special. The fact that I’m not special is why I think we can learn from my experience.