Life is tough, and also unpredictable. Nicholas Taleb has made a literary career out of pointing this out – after making at least two fortunes betting on it as a risk analyst. To massively oversimplify the theory he puts forward in his bestseller The Black Swan, extremely rare events – like 9/11, the 2008 stock market crash and the success of Facebook – are impossible to predict, no matter how much anyone says otherwise after the event. The only logical response, Taleb argues in his most recent book, is aiming to become ‘Antifragile’ – to design your lifestyle so that you’ll benefit from chaos and volatility. This isn’t the same as just being resilient in the face of bad things happening: it’s about becoming stronger because of them.
Examples? Sure thing. In mythology, for instance, the Phoenix is robust – it dies, but comes back unchanged. The Hydra is Antifragile – chop off its head, and it grows two more. Become an entrepreneur instead of working for a large, unwieldy company, Taleb says, and you’re like the Hydra – more able to adapt and change when bad things happen. Chase after status, and you’re at the mercy of trends – develop social capital, and you’ll be well-prepared for most problems. When chaos comes, you’ll adapt better than most, and end up ahead.
It’s sensible thinking, and the book’s worth reading. But how does this relate to your training plan?
Taleb does make some suggestions about fitness in his book – he does some powerlifting, and suggests switching between diets on a near-daily basis – but, with respect to him, it’s not really his area of expertise. And it’s true to say that the point of any sort of training plan is to take advantage of the human body’s natural antifragility, since adapting to the stress of lifting weights or running is how your body gets stronger. But can you go further? Yes, you can.
Here’s the thing: it can actually be quite difficult to plan to introduce some chaos into your workout, but by embracing it when it happens you can better prepare yourself for the randomness of life: now and in the future. Unless you’re a professional sportsperson or you’re training for a competition, you want your training and nutrition to be sustainable pretty much forever – which means making it adaptable without making it into a completely random mess. Here’s how you do that.
Really, this means having a workout that will force your body to adapt. When you start training, this is simple: that’s why P90X and Crossfit get such miraculous results in the early going. As you get fitter, it’s harder to introduce the right kind of stress to your body – which means keeping track of your gym numbers, and aiming to improve them.
Think upside vs downside
Taleb’s books are all about this. If your investment strategy makes a steady stream of income but can see you lose all your money in an unpredictable (but likely) random event, that’s a lot of downside. If it minimises risk while giving you the chance of making a fortune, that’s a lot of upside. Exercise is the same: every move or training protocol you can pick has risks and rewards. If rowing and sprinting will both get you to the bodyfat percentage you want, is it worth risking a blown hamstring with the latter? If snatches will make you 10% more explosive than a similar frequency of trap-bar jumps but could wreck your shoulders, which do you do? For non-athletes, the answer is almost always to pick the exercise that will get the most results with the least possible risk of injury.
Throw things out
The Romans, Taleb notes, called this via negativa. Yes, having a cable-cross is nice, but do you really need it when you can get similar results with a set of go-anywhere gymnastics rings? Strip out the unnecessary from your training plan and you’ll have more time to concentrate on the important. If in doubt, consider Gym Jones’ classic SMMF – 1,000 lunges, or 100 handstand pressups, done over an hour or so. Simple and nasty.
Add to your workout ‘quiver’
If you’re lost without the gym’s only E-Z bar, workout time is always going to be frustrating. Conversely, if you can train with whatever’s to hand then you’ll never have to wait for kit – and your body will benefit from the variety. Bare minimum, you should aim to learn, by heart, a workout you can do with no kit at all, then ones that use a single piece of kit: a pull up bar, a barbell, some dumbbells, and a TRX…and expand from there. Nobody likes the guy curling in the squat rack, but if you have six different leg workouts in the clip, you won’t have to deal with him.
Train through the day
Ignore the false dichotomy between ‘gym time’ and the rest of your day – activity is activity. Pavel calls it Greasing The Groove, while anyone preparing for the SEAL’s notorious Hell Week knows the value of doing dozens of pressups, spaced out through the day. Make doing a set of pull ups, pressups or squats during downtime instinctive, and you’ll increase your work capacity with barely any effort.
Learn to ‘fast’
Eating six small meals a day works great – right up until life makes it impossible. Learn when your body does (and doesn’t) need fuel, and a day without tupperware won’t send you into a panic. The rule of thumb? More carbs around training sessions, less on rest days, and no meltdowns if you have to skip a meal entirely. Part of the benefit of fasting is that you’ll learn that it’s okay to be a bit hungry. A green tea will be fine. Maybe have an apple.
Learn to cook
Obvious, but underrated. Crucially, learn to cook meals that use leftovers, different cuts of meat, and things that are available in your local 24-hour garage – no cardamom pods required. Learning six ways to make eggs and leftovers palatable is more important than perfecting a coq au vin, and easier. Start here.
Plan, but be adaptable
This is what it all comes down to. Funnily enough, most athletes’ training plans are very ‘fragile’ – if your plan relies on six training days a week, a tailored nutrition programme and 9 hours of uninterrupted sleep and you aren’t a paid professional athlete, you are probably going to fuck up somewhere. Strip it back to the basics: three hard sessions a week, more walks to the shops and pressups whenever you’re at a loose end, your workout plan should be near-bulletproof.