Jonathan Messner, MS, CSCS

Exercise, human nature, and western culture are very much like Jon, alcohol, and people asking Jon about exercise: a bad combination that doesn’t end well.
I have spent nights racking my brain as to why most people don’t get
it. The best reason I have come up with so far is that it is beyond what we know and what we admit we don’t know.
Now bear with me here. This will make sense in a second, a minute, a couple of hours… it will all make sense
eventually, I think.
I could go on and on and on about how we are screwing ourselves in every walk of life, not just the exercise part of it. Alas, all people want to hear me talk about is exercise. Is all I am a one-trick pony to you? (What, exactly, is a one-trick pony anyway?)
Are you lost yet? Are you ready to type in a new web address? Well hold on partner because this is really important. This is hugely important. It speaks to the very core of “why” we do what we do in the exercise realm. And it all boils down to human nature, which seems to be our achilles heel. Want proof? Ask any Joe-Schmo on the street what is the best exercise for someone with a bad back. “Crunches or sit-ups” they will most likely say. Or watch someone who is quasi-trained do a ton of lunges. What eventually happens? Even though they know better, that knee begins to creep forward over the big toe (many will argue this point with me, but this is MY website and MY article so in this little world, I am in charge). The point is we do things for the sake of doing things and don’t really look beyond the “why” when it comes to exercising. Of course, that is why you have guys like me, and I really appreciate that, but I think I would sleep better if people stopped doing sit-ups for the sake of doing sit-ups, even if it cut into my business a little. But, in the grand scheme of things we really aren’t to blame, either. Blame human nature.
I feel that in the past I have ripped into things and then left it at that. “Culture sucks. Your instincts suck. Human nature sucks. You suck.” Etcetera etcetera. But why Jon? Why??? Well I think I may have finally figured something out…
The other day I came across a great article entitled “Does Your Brain Have a Mind of Its Own” in the Los Angeles Times by Gary Marcus. In the article, Gary talks about how we as a species can have the best laid plans, but then for whatever reason, screw it up. We
want to go on a diet. We know we need to go on a diet. It is clearly the right thing to do for our body; yet, that triple-layer chocolate cake always seems to get the best of us. We know that crunches are bad for us. We know that squatting with knees coming forward is bad for us. Yet we still perform crunches and squats with sloppy technique. To be fair, I think part of it is that we know very little about exercise and even less about the human body. This leads to confusion, especially when you have one “expert” telling you one thing and another “expert” telling you something else. But what I think may be even more important, as Gary alludes to in the article, is that we have two different parts of the brain working that do not communicate with each other.
These two parts of the brain are the result of the imperfect evolutionary process. Contrary to popular belief, evolution is far from perfect (just look at the aardvark). To quote Gary’s article; “As Charles Darwin observed, evolution invariably proceeds through a process called ‘descent with modification.’” So even though we have evolved to a certain level when it comes to decision making, we are still hampered by “archaic” or “primitive” instincts that never quite got erased. To illustrate, let us take a look at some of our primitive instincts in action.
The fight or flight response:

  • Man sees bear with big claws and big teeth.

  • Man runs.

The human need to procreate:
  • Man sees woman.

  • Man wants to knock-boots with woman.

These primitive, survival instincts have morphed (over time) into what’s known as the instantaneous gratification instinct. It is pretty much the same instinct, but because our survival doesn’t depend on it so much anymore, it has taken on a bit of a different role. Let me illustrate with some crack-head in the gym:
  • Man’s back hurts.

  • Man stretches back to feel better.

We do things without thinking about the possible repercussions because it satisfies us instantly. That might work when running from a large animal with big claws. But how many people have Las Vegas weddings after knowing their fiancé for only a week? And don’t even get me started on all the bad things that can occur when you stretch out the lumbar erectors.
Our super-charged, steroid-filled, America-kicks-ass culture magnifies the rift between the analytical side of the brain and the primitive side of the brain. And no matter how hard some people try to analyze, their primitive side always seems to be constantly inserting its two cents. Just take a look at doctors who practice bad medicine, politicians who lie, or trainers who make their clients do stupid exercises.
The point is that exercise should be undertaken only with the analytical side. If not, then you run into problems. You start to let your subconscious get the best of you. Your subconscious doesn’t want to engage in corrective exercise. It wants to work its ass off so that it feels instant satisfaction. Even the best-laid intentions will eventually get diluted with primitive thinking.
Which brings me to exercises I love for me but hate for you. The exercises that I present in the video below I perform on a regular basis. However, most of my clients have trouble understanding them (all of whom are much brighter than I am). These exercises only work if you use the analytical side of your brain. Do whatever it is you have to do to shut up the primitive side; meditation, narcotics, or video games (which is actually a form of a drug, but I digress).
Focus your mind grasshopper.