Saturday, February 12, 2022

Minimal is not Optimal.

"By my calculations, you're not lifting optimally."

            I encounter with increasing frequency the attitude that “less is more” when it comes to physical training. This sentiment about physicality seems to originate from two sources: time management and risk mitigation. Those with this conception of training figure backwards from their goal, but in doing so are unable to observe the process that will carry them forward to realization. Often, once the minimum is determined the optimal is defined. These “optimalists” are usually new to weight training.

            Optimalists prioritize managing time and risk. Then other factors are accounted for down to minutiae, with the most pathological concerned with the more inconsequential, or things not fully knowable (like genetic potential). Once sufficient factors at play are known, or believed to be known, then the optimal course to the finish line is planned backwards – the path of least resistance, of least energy expenditure, of least effort, of least trying.

            Why is this so?

Because, for the sake of efficiency, the optimalist does not set out to achieve until sufficient information is collected; a hoard is amassed, much of it as useless as stacks of People magazine. Optimalists act as if all factors can be accounted for in conceiving the path towards their goal. They want physical development fast with the least exertion necessary, believing that foreknowledge of the journey – before the first step is taken – guarantees the least sweat while earning the greatest reward.

This disregards the possibility of learning new information that benefits the process while in the process. It also fails to recognize that of the many factors at play in physical development, not all have known upper and lower limits, or are even accurately approximated, and of those factors, many cannot be reasonably determined until the training process is already underway. Some may never be known but exist merely as faithful estimates (such as genetic potential).

"What's optimal?"

Optimalists want to master their bodies as if it were a detached instrument from their minds. Like they were a disassociated omnipotent musician, and once total knowledge of their instrument is had, only then will they play, for the very first try guarantees the most beautiful song. If mastery was not achieved before trying, they risk failure. Something to be avoided at all costs, even if it means not trying at all, so thinks the optimalist. This is absurd because it is the process of learning the instrument and combining a variety of melodies, with some better than others, that develops a musician one day capable of composing a masterpiece.

Sometimes, optimalists imagine their whole story arc at the character creation screen of a role-playing game. After selecting a class, perhaps an archer, or knight, or mage, a certain number of points are given to distribute among attributes to tune their character and optimize their play style. This is silly because it combines biological determinism (character class and attribution points) within a predestined fantasy world of which the player already knows more about than the world they will experience in real life: the gym. Their live action role play of physical development is make-believe (often without the make).

The optimalist acts as if they have (or can have) total knowledge of the class and abilities of their real-life bodies while living in an equally known world that can be optimized through their character’s intrinsic qualities – all without playing a single minute of the game. Playing the game then becomes mere button pushing, with any experience in the process being frivolous. The entire act grows tedious, and when so, effort wanes (no wonder why such people never achieve much in the gym).

Any seasoned lifter knows of such people. Those who cannot figure out that it is not the lack of a perfect plan that is keeping them from making progress, it is their constant seeking of the optimal that risks keeping them at the minimal.

So, the optimalist quits or changes their program continuously, hoping that with a better class and strategy, a reset will prove more fruitful and efficient. Self-defeating and inefficiency incarnate. The antithesis to, and a surefire means out of, the pitfall of optimalism. Exactly the self that needs defeating. (Yes, that is an argument for program hopping.)

            Optimalists have never ending questions about trivial aspects because getting an answer from someone else is easier than figuring it out for themselves. While learning from others is beneficial, some things are unknowable unless one experiences it themselves. Optimal is unknowable until limits are discovered, and a litany of other factors, each of which more individual until their impact on development becomes trivial.

By mastering physical training trivia, the optimalist prioritizes collecting information that orbits achievement. They collect satellites without having a body to gravitate them. In finding their way out of optimalism, how much of those supposed facts about lifting, biology, and nutrition, becomes space junk? (Most of it.) That is the crux of the problem. Their knowledge is not anchored by experience, and it becomes the very thing that inhibits them until they try and learn what is genuinely best for them.

Someone should tell him that wide stance conventional is not optimal.

Physicality is the trying. Physical development requires doing until finding the answer that cannot be had secondhand. Such processes befuddle the optimalist because what they do not know cannot become known until they discovered it. Once they do, the answer is theirs alone; their optimal.

            The new gym goer asks, “I’m going to run XYZ-program. Is it optimal for me?”

            “Do it and see.” Replies the veteran lifter.

            There is little reason for the veteran lifter to ponder such minutiae for someone else. Perhaps they were once an optimalist too. Or, like me, they were the new guy in the gym trying hard to keep up with more experienced lifters, and therefore unconcerned with optimal. Instead, their day-to-day performance is what mattered.

            Was I very sore the next day? Sometimes.

            Did it regress my physicality? Never.

Once I was on my own, the justification for lifting this way or that became to see if I can. It has been that way for years. It is all that is required. It is my optimal.

            The optimalist, seeking knowledge over experience, hopes to prioritize efficiency over discovery. But they fail to recognize that in whatever source their energy is vested in, the optimal remains a mystery covered by faith until their own acts produce the desired outcome. Once achieved, that course is deemed optimal ex post facto.

            But was it?

            Could it have been done faster with less effort? Is that even answerable without trying something else and comparing results? Should that comparison be attempted, to truly discover optimal, doesn’t the overall process become less so (or at the very least risk it) by doing more than what may be necessary? Optimalists suffer in the purgatory between certainty and discovery because once they physically try what was thought optimal and it is found not to be, their endeavor slows to avoid risking further inefficiency. In doing so, they risk their goal, for the goal was what is optimal – not physical development.

            Preventing wasted time and undue risk is the heart of the optimalist desire. Second to that is attaining sufficient knowledge to justify their actions and results. Last comes the trying. Why not let hard work, consistency, and patience produce results that justify themselves?

            To the optimalist: Do more because less is just as risky and inefficient, and if you want to gain size and strength optimally, try trying.

Peak optimalist.