What is Fitness By Max El-hag

The Evolving Journey

If you Google the phrase “what is fitness,” one of the first hits is a PDF from October 2002 written by Greg Glassman. That article was a pivotal piece of literature in my life. I began to think about the human body in a more complex fashion, trying to solve the unsolvable puzzle of the human mind-body. During my years in the community, many people I’ve met agree this was a paradigm shifting definition of fitness with regards to the way people at the time were approaching the care of their bodies.

However, over the years it seems that some of the conceptual frameworks were lost in the pursuit of excelling at the CrossFit Games, seeking higher levels of gymnastics skills for Instagram, driving up weightlifting metrics (also for Instagram seemingly), or ‘looking good naked.’ I’ve always understood these quests largely because I’ve lived them for periods of time in my life. But really, I was drawn to this community because I was exposed to the underlying beauty of these principles. I have never been a ‘zealot’ or someone who blindly follows information from an ‘authority.’ Because of this, I’ve always striven to synthesize and upgrade information, apply concepts to my own experience, and progress and evolve. After a period of two years competing in the sport of CrossFit™ in 2010-2011 I have come to my own interpretation of this definition, and have come to understand things for myself which has effected how I coach my community.

Because my language skills are not at a high enough level to transcribe complex thoughts, and because my ideas don’t exist in black and white linearity, that definition cannot be put into a concise singular definition, but can be communicated through rules, ideas, stories, and concepts… some of which may or may not contradict one another.

Rule 1- Fitness evolves. What is important to each individual will change. During periods of your life you will want to get lean, get strong, get skinny, improve your sex drive, improve your energy levels, prevent disease, do all of them together, etc. Sticking to a singular definition of a term that is dependent on the variable of time is setting yourself up for failure. Fitness must be an evolution for each and every person.

Rule 2- Fitness must encompass some subjective health markers. I know beautiful people who have no sex drive. I know incredibly fit people who are so tired on a regular basis that all they do is sleep and train. I know active people who have to force-feed themselves. I know young athletes who have diarrhea multiple times a day. I know young wealthy athletes who don’t experience pleasure and enjoyment in life. I have not yet found a quantifiable system to incorporate all the physical qualities and all the personal qualities to come up with a ‘quality of life’ score that I would stand behind, but life is more than just an image in the mirror, or a video of an impressive lift, or a feeling you get when people think you are superior. Life is an experience, and your definition of fitness must include an awareness of the choices you are making to effect your overall experience.

Rule 3- Fitness is individual. The variability in the human species is pretty wild. The variability in what people choose as goals in their life is just as fluid. Some people are thinkers, some are speakers, some are home makers, some are workers, some are athletes, some are teachers, some are helpers, some are adventurers, and so on. Fitness for an athlete can be different than fitness for an ex athlete and can be different for an athlete for a different sport and can be dramatically different for goals having nothing to do with being an athlete. Even in the CrossFit Games (CrossFit’s ultimate test of their own definition of fitness) they will not uniformly and equally test the 10 general skills that can be found in the “What is Fitness” article mentioned. This opens up a potential debate for whether or not the games is a test of the skills performed in the tests in the opens/regionals/games or a test of fitness according to their own definition. Regardless where you stand in that argument, my personal belief is that people’s fitness needs can vary by both degree and type depending on who they are and what they want.

Rule 4- Fitness takes into consideration virtuosity in body control and technical execution of chosen skills. Some things cannot be ‘measured’ in life and can only be observed. ‘Beauty’ and ‘virtuosity’ are two of those things. Non measurable characteristics of movement quality, technical execution of movements, and body lines should be something we aim for long term even if it’s difficult to quantifiably say if we are getting ‘better’ or not.

Rule 5- Every person has the right to alter, change, or add to these rules of fitness to serve living life the way they want to live it. Similarly, they have the right to reject them entirely and adopt a different definition or create their own definition of fitness. Fulfillment, happiness, connection, and progress are more important as ultimate goals in this thing we call life. If the rules become restrictive to those things for anyone, change them and create your own. If they support you, then live by them until they are no longer necessary.

So, based on the above, what does fitness look like for me? After years of competitive wrestling, competitive football, running, body composition questing, MMA/grappling, and CrossFit™, I’ve come to understand what I want from my body. Largely this is driven as a function of my past experiences, my current desires, and planning for the future I want to create for myself. Again, like my definition of the word itself, my fitness cannot be described through a singular definition and must instead be split into conceptual ideas that come together into a whole that exists as a feeling within my internal psyche and thoughts.

Fitness for ME is…

- Having less pain in my joints. 5 broken bones, 2 surgeries, 2 herniated disks, and years of aggressive training and aggressive dieting has left a profound mark on my joints. Minimizing further deterioration is one of my primary goals so that I can enjoy training without thinking about how much willpower I will need to call on to try to numb the pain to push through more suffering.

- Having the freedom to enjoy food. For 15 years I watched everything that I ate. Cutting weight for wrestling, worrying about what I ate and it’s impact on my six pack, and fitting into the fitness culture as an expert left me with an unhealthy relationship with food. Everything I did was to control the intake/output ratio, the ‘inflammatory process,’ or to conform to the current standard of ‘good nutrition.’ I still ‘eat healthy’ (which is defined by me, supported by research, and not dogmatic), but I am learning to enjoy one of the great pleasures we have in life in a balanced way. In other times in history we would have been struggling to find food and starving to death and would beg for a life where surplus was an option. Willingly making that choice to create scarcity to torture myself in a time of abundance is no longer something I want to do. I fuel my body for my training and I indulge my emotions with food occasionally to get nostalgic about the comfort calories can bring when in a state of stress, anxiety, or caloric deficit.

- Improving my movement quality. I have watched people who take fitness seriously, age really poorly. Their joints get creaky, tight, restricted, swollen, and painful often times leading to many surgeries and a reliance on pain management tools. I want to be able to play sports, enjoy the golf course, and experience complex motor patterns for as long as my biology allows me. At 235 pounds with a very fast adaptation to strength work, my body is very prone to getting tighter and more bulky. In an effort to counter act this, I spend a lot of time doing gymnastics work, stretching, and doing locomotion/flow/self exploration work.

- Maintaining some capacity. I coach many high level athletes in the sport of CrossFit ™and people who are competitive in other sports disciplines as well. Maintaining the ability to show them that I am no longer completely lazy and soft, and that I truly empathize with their suffering is important. I will still maintain my ability to lift some heavy weights, endure for a short explosive time domain, and breathe for longer durations. I avoid the middle pathway that is largely tested in CrossFit™ because it doesn’t suit my physiology or psychology well, but ensure that every once in a while I remember what it is like to go into that full panic mode because I think that survival based suffering every once in a while reminds you what being alive is all about.

- Representing health for my business. In my assessment course , I create a definition and accompanying pyramid to explain health. In that, the mental/emotional/spiritual/human component of one’s self is the base of the pyramid. And built on top of that is hormonal health, movement quality, strength, endurance, and finalized by an individuals goals. I believe that true leaders stand behind their ideas, and both help other people live by them, and lead by example. I see a lot of leaders in the fitness industry giving nutrition advice while they are secretly injecting themselves with hormones creating justifications as to why they ‘need’ them. I see coaches of athletes who have never been athletes, and don’t know what it’s like to take on a tremendous quest not knowing whether or not you will fail or succeed and have to face the humiliation of being alone on the competition floor after a loss. I’ve seen fitness CEO’s who don’t take care of their bodies and use esoteric definitions as an excuse to continue overly abusing themselves physically well into their middle aged lives. I do not want to be one of those leaders. My aim is to make other people’s lives more rich and enjoyable. I have spent a lot of time and energy understanding my emotional self, striving to master my own psyche, and building a life and community that I am grateful to have some creative control over. And in the process of doing so I have set a base on top of which I can build my own personal definition of health. My own experiences in life and fitness have allowed me to help people who are seeking to be high level athletes, who are dealing with chronic pain, who struggle with weight gain, who have obsessions with body composition manipulation, who are striving for better movement quality, and much more. The diversity and intensity of my experiences I feel helped me help others and I feel I have an obligation to continue to strive to improve in order to help on a larger scale.

“…, While the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell. It's the only light we've got in all the darkness."

So, this is my story as it stands today. There may be new chapters to come, their may be revisions to this as an old copy, there may be a time where I am embarrassed that I ever thought this way, but this is my attempt at providing light to someone who may feel lost in the darkness of their own journey. There is always hope…

~ Max

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Max El-Hag
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