How to avoid Cargo Cult Fitness

‘I don’t know if you heard me, I did over a thousand. It’s a deep burn.’

When it comes to exercise, you’ll often hear trainers, well-wishers and those nice government information films tell you that doing anything is better than doing nothing. In the strictest sense of semantics that’s true: going on an elliptical for ten, five or two minutes will burn more calories than watching How I Met Your Mother for the same length of time. Going for a brisk walk is slightly better than not going for a brisk walk, and curling with pink dumbbells will make you fractionally stronger than lying completely motionless on the sofa.

The trouble, obviously, is that these minimal changes aren’t enough. Curling with tiny dumbbells gives you less of a workout than carrying your shopping or a baby around, jogging is much worse than most people think for fat loss, and brisk walks are only good if you don’t use them as an excuse to eat more Custard Creams. The result? The person who’s doing them doesn’t lose fat, or tone up, or whatever else they’re trying to do, so after two or three weeks they go back to sitting on the sofa, except that now they’re convinced that exercise somehow ‘doesn’t work’ on them, and so they’re actually worse off than before. And all the time, the problem is actually that they’re doing something that isn’t real training. Training is distinct from exercise, in that it has a point.

Famed quantum physicist and hobbyist safecracker Richard P. Feynman told this anecdote at Caltech in 1974:

‘In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head to headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas–he’s the controller–and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land.’

Of course we’re all cleverer than the Cargo Cults – except that plenty who ‘exercise’ are doing, or encouraging, exactly the same thing. Three sets of ten curls with a 2kg dumbbell, or doing triceps kickbacks with a tin of tomato soup during ad breaks, or running so slowly that you can talk about last night’s X-Factor, or just repeating the same chest workout with the same sets, reps and rests you’ve been doing forever, isn’t going to show any more results than making a traffic controller’s tower out of bamboo. To the casual observer, it looks right. It seems like exercise. But it isn’t. Not really.

There are lots of ways to escape the trap of Cargo Cult Fitness, but here’s just one: progression. Have three or four indicator exercises that you’re aiming to improve on: good examples might be the back squat, your max chinups, or your 5k time. Whatever else you do in your programme, aim to improve them. If they get better, you’re getting fitter, and the body composition results you’re looking for are likely to come. If they stay the same, then look at what you’re doing, and make sure you’re not the one wearing the coconut headphones.

HOMEWORK: Pick one exercise that you’d like to improve at – preferably a nice full-body one like pressups, squats or lunges. Find a reputable programme for getting better at them – there are loads. Improve.

About the author


Editor and creator of Live Hard. Fighting enthusiast, steak lover and aficionado of all things self-improvement related.

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