PT on the Net Research

Romantic vs Classic Fitness

"We should take care not to make the intellect our god. It has powerful muscles, but no personality."
- Albert Einstein

"Pure logic is the ruin of the spirit."
- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

So, you want to argue about physical training, health and the ways of the human body? Of course you do. Everyone has an opinion these days, and a lot of those opinions are strident, passionate and well reasoned.

At first glance, our ideas seem to be all over the map, but if you’re an astute observer, you may have noticed that there are two distinct schools of thought on the life and conditioning of the body: one is classical, the other is romantic.

To understand this distinction, we need to go back in history and review some of the famous hippie literature of the 1960s, specifically Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig was a writer-philosopher, and he probably wasn’t even in very good shape, but he did give us an incredibly useful distinction about our habits of thought, a distinction that we can apply directly to the predicament of the modern human body.

For Pirsig, the classic mode of thought is rational, linear, organized and sequential. We recognize the classic perspective when we hear people speak about systems, hierarchies, sequences, units, precision and quantity. Stereotypically, we think of engineers, accountants and administrators. We think of exercise scientists and scientific athletes. In contrast, we recognize the romantic perspective when we hear people talking about experience, aesthetics, passion, wildness, sensation and quality. We think of artists, musicians, dancers and poets.

For the fitness enthusiast, it’s easy to see these qualities in the way people approach exercise and conditioning. On one hand, we have the romantic dancer, a movement artist who is primarily interested in the quality of his movement experience. He speaks the language of passion, feeling, expression and inspiration. When the romantic exerciser steps into the gym, the studio or onto the stage, he is looking to create an experience with meaning. For him, vigorous physical movement is considered an end in itself. (It is “auto-telic.”) If it feels good, it is good.

On the other hand, we have the exercise physiologist and the scientific trainer. These individuals focus their attention on data, quantification and measurable results. When the classical exerciser steps into the gym or onto the practice field, he looks to achieve a certain performance result. The immediate experience is less important than the ultimate outcome. For him, practice sessions are a means to an end, a record-setting performance or a physiological transformation, usually weight loss or an improved medical profile.

It’s easy to see that individual exercisers have distinct preferences for classic or romantic points of view. In the extreme, it works like this: The romantic individual prefers dance, yoga, aikido and tai chi and wouldn’t be caught dead with a clipboard or a heart rate monitor. He consistently looks for the experiential quality of movement and has no interest in keeping score or breaking records.

The classicist, on the other hand, tends to prefer weight lifting, running, swimming or any other activity that can be readily quantified and analyzed. He derives a sense of satisfaction from recording his performance and comparing it to previous efforts. For the classical extremist, the numbers may even become more important than the experience itself.

Naturally, these schools of thought tend to have a negative opinion of one another. Classicists consider the romantics to be empty headed dabblers who prefer mysticism to authentically challenging movement. They see the romantic style as nothing more than a lofty sounding dodge, something people do to avoid the genuine work that is necessary for physical transformation. Romantics, on the other hand, view the classicists as insensitive automatons who bear a strong resemblance to the machines they work with such devoted labor. They may have impressive numbers, but if you take their clipboards away, they have nothing left.

The conflict goes deep. As Pirsig put it: "To a romantic, the classic mode often appears dull, awkward and ugly. Everything’s got to be measured and proved. Oppressive. Heavy. Endlessly grey. The death force. Within the classic mode, however, the romantic has some appearances of his own. Frivolous, irrational, erratic, untrustworthy, interested primarily in pleasure seeking. Shallow. Of no substance."

And when it gets really nasty, the rift breaks down this way: The romantic attempts to claim the mysto-spiritual high ground, usually talking about the power of intuition to trump the wicked and soulless machinery of the classicist. The classicist, for his part, lays claim to scientific certainty, backing it up with reams of data, footnotes, references and journal articles. For him, the romantics are simply delusional. 

Tyranny of the Classicists

For my part, I’ve spent time in both camps. I’ve logged my mileage and tracked my numbers. I’ve even filled out spreadsheets and graphed my performance. But I’ve also done my share of romantic, intuitive movement. Both styles have their merits, but it’s now becoming obvious that there are serious imbalances in our cultural approach to the human body. The simple fact is, when it comes to matters of health, fitness and training, the classic mode is tyrannizing our perspective.

Everywhere we look, from the gym to the clinic to the hospital, it’s all about classical expertise, measurement and method. Professionalism is now linked directly to the classical point of view. Logic and rationality have become the fundamental currency of the day. We traffic almost exclusively in spreadsheets, online forms, bullet points and checklists. We drive relentlessly towards measurement, research, data, proof and statistics. Numbers rule our consciousness.

In the world of health and fitness, no one takes the romantics seriously anymore. You can’t get a certificate or a job if you don’t take a classical point of view. Knowledge is only considered valid if it’s measurable, trackable and independently verifiable. If you want some letters after your name, you’d better learn how to speak in numbers.

Not surprisingly, computers are driving this drift towards classical quantification. Classical ideas are easily digitized, after all. It’s a simple matter to track exercise on a spreadsheet. Sets, reps and mileage are easy to chart, easy to enter into a data base. It all looks professional. Authoritative. Lends credibility.

Romantic experience, on the other hand, is almost impossible to digitize. How do we squeeze passion and experience into bits and bytes? We can’t. In fact, the moment we apply numbers and structure to romance, we kill the entire enterprise. (Try to track your lovemaking performance with a spreadsheet, and see what it does for your relationship.) And so, in our loyalty and devotion to our computers, we simply choose to disregard the romantic point of view. If you can’t digitize it, for all practical purposes, it doesn’t even exist.

Romantic Primates

Classicists will argue long and hard for their position, but one fact trumps all of their vocalizations. That is, when it comes to the animal world, romance is fundamental. Romance is primal. Romance lives in the deep structures of the primate brain, the limbic system. This circuitry is many millions of years older than the neocortex, the brain structure responsible for classical thinking.

Consider the non-human animals of the world, especially our closest primate relatives, the chimpanzees. These creatures have no interest in the classical mode of thought. They have no interest in systems, hierarchies, sequences, units, precision or quantification. They have no interest in sets or reps. They don’t log mileage, and they don’t enter their performance on spreadsheets. And yet, their health and fitness is incredible.

I have been to Africa and have seen the chimpanzees of Gombe, Tanzania. These animals are fit beyond belief. They are immensely strong, agile and endurant. But during my visit, I did not see a single chimpanzee with a clipboard. I did not see a single heart rate monitor, pedometer, spreadsheet, stopwatch or laptop computer. These animals did it all with gravity, vigorous movement, play and emotion. That’s all a primate really needs.

A quick thought experiment bears this out. Imagine an alien attack that somehow destroyed human understanding of numbers. Or imagine a hyper-infectious computer virus that wiped out every hard drive on earth. Could we still train people? Could we still do physical education? Without numbers? Without our precious data?

Of course we could. All it would take is some romantic imagination. Get your tribe together and start moving. Make up some games and use whatever toys you’ve got on hand. Run some hills and climb some trees. Sing and dance. Pump some rocks and lift some logs. Chop wood and carry water. Play. Sure, you might not get your people to world-class Olympic status, but who cares? We’ve got an obesity crisis on our hands. Just getting people moving at all is success!

So maybe it’s time to give the classical mode some time off. Let the classicists have a vacation. They obviously need one. Let them fall in love with something besides numbers. Forget the data mongering, the performance tracking, the calorie measuring, the sets, the reps and the mileage. Forget the spreadsheets, the online forms, the program administration and the credentials.

The message we need to take to heart is simple: Fall in love with movement. If we can give that to our clients, we’ll make a real difference.