Dulce bellum inexpertis (War is delightful to the inexperienced).~Erasmus, the 16th-century scholar
Every profession has its trends. Fads come and go, attention shifts and culture changes. In the world of personal training, the trend of our day is militarization, especially in the form of boot camps and MMA.
I believe that this trend is inappropriate and counterproductive. I believe that it's time to drop the combat orientation and create more appropriate and relevant forms of physical experience.
Before you dismiss my proposal as that of a weak and skinny whiner, let me just say that I've done the martial arts circuit. I trained really hard for a couple of decades and earned a couple of black belts. Back when I was training, I could really dish out some physical punishment to myself and others. And now, on reflection, I see that a good deal of that training was wasted. Wasted on domination and posturing. Wasted on a futile quest for security. Wasted on maximizing the self at the expense of integration. What I finally realized was that there are far more beneficial and interesting ways to train the body.
Fitness pundits like to talk about the great conditioning benefits of MMA combat training, but MMA isn't about conditioning at all. Any biologist would see the obvious. That is, MMA is primate dominance behavior, pure and simple.
Contestants train, not to become better people or to make the world a better place, but to establish their place in the hierarchy of other primates, to dominate men and get access to the females. For a primatologist, it's completely transparent. In this sense, MMA fighters are no different than chimpanzees tearing limbs off of trees in the forest, trying to impress the tribe. And we, as trainers, are simply offering our expertise so that these fighters can get better at tearing limbs off of trees. Why not call it what it is?
Ultimately, it's all hormonal, a cultural case of testosterone poisoning. As our nation and our world slide deeper into economic insecurity, and with multiple wars in progress, people feel an ever greater need to assert their position. Men lead the way in this behavior, doing whatever they can to exercise power, often with the body. In contrast, secure people do not go looking for ways to dominate one another. They look for rapport. They look for solutions.
Along with MMA, the other trend in fitness militarization is, of course, the boot camp. Boot camps have proliferated in recent years, based on the assumption that the only way to really get in shape is to have an unpleasant physical experience, motivated by a loud authority figure. It's hard to believe, but the history, imagery and context of boot camps are lost on both trainers and participants. In fact, boot camps are preparation for killing people in war. They are about obedience, conformity, unit cohesion and the ability to withstand intense physical hardship. Boot camps are not about health, longevity, sustainability or integration.
MMA and boot camp trainings are narrow specializations devoted to the body and very little else. Yes, there are benefits in the form of speed, strength, mental focus and the like, but what about human relationships? What about the earth, land and habitat? And what about the tragic state of the world that we now inhabit? Our biosphere and our social systems are on the verge of collapse. Wouldn't it make more sense to develop physical arts that promote human relationships and integration with the natural world?
It would be one thing if combat conditioning and boot camps were the only ways to develop physical excellence, but that's not the case at all. There are thousands of ways to make our bodies stronger and healthier. The number of physical art forms is almost endless. And that's the beauty of it. With so many ways to train our bodies for strength, vitality and exuberance, why not create something beautiful, progressive and productive?
If the proliferation of MMA and boot camps tell us anything, it's that our professional imagination is failing us, just at the time we need it most. MMA and boot camps are crude and to be completely honest, ugly. The imagery and metaphors they provide are counter-productive to both individuals and our culture at large. If we were a little more creative, we would invent new forms that are appropriate to the conditions that we live in.
Some will argue that by offering MMA and boot camps, we are simply giving people what they want. We, like good businesspeople anywhere, are simply responding to market forces. If people want combative, militarized physical training, that's what we'll give them. We are nothing more or less than good service providers.
But this view is passive, reactive and ultimately, irresponsible. It is followership, not leadership. As trainers, our job to get out in front of our culture and show the way to something better. This would be a demonstration of real strength.
Our profession has some of the brightest, most intelligent, most creative people in the world.
Boot camps and MMA are a step backwards.
We can do better.
Frank Forencich is an internationally-recognized leader in health education and performance training. For additional information, visit Frank's Exuberant Animal website.
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