The floor and the canopy

When I was sixteen I thought it was impressive to deadlift 100kg. When I was nineteen I thought it was impressive to squat twice your bodyweight. When I was twenty-two I was caught up with Dan John’s notion of standards. “I should have a specific level of proficiency in the push, pull, squat, hinge and carry patterns,” I told myself. When I was twenty-five performance impressed me less than process—I attributed more value to how someone approached their problems, not the extent to which they had managed to overcome them. Now, I’m twenty-seven, and right on cue a development in my philosophy of movement has come around. And it’s occurred for two reasons.

First, I read a Twitter threads: one and two. The ideas being debated centred around the ludic-ness of movements like the deadlift; how much they simulate and cross-over into the “real world”. I won’t rehash it at length, but I will include what I thought was the most interesting observation. Says @e-volutionarily:

“Barbell ~100 years old, not Lindy.
Human movement is gait cycle and is rotation based, think 95% of Olympic sports outside of lifting, it’s all swinging and rotation, throwing, kicking, jumping (one legged), running. Everything in real life is unilateral, in gym bilateral.”

Second, on a recent holiday to Greece I went stand-up paddleboarding. I’ve wanted to do it for a while, and a place with calm, blue waters and near-empty beaches (it was end of season) seemed like the ideal location. After a few stumbles I figured out my two main mistakes. First, I was watching the water and trying to anticipate how the waves would move the board. Second, and this feeds into the first, I was holding myself with too much rigidity. In Judo, you have to go with the throw—if you resist it the ground seems a lot harder. You have to have faith in your body’s ability to unconsciously provide the correct reaction. Same with stand-up paddleboarding. Your body needs a little tension, but only enough to keep you upright. The aim is to be pliable, to let the waves and the board show you how to move. Seas and oceans are big, powerful things—better to work with them.

But how do these two things make up a new aspect of my movement philosophy? Let me explain.


The gymnasium is an unnatural environment. But what is the opposite of the gymnasium, with its precision engineered equipment, with its sweat stink, with its Barbell Bros and Crossfit Cultists, with its mediocre pop-music ambiance, with its straight lines, right angles and flat planes? The jungle. The jungle which we primates forget that we come from. And to traverse a jungle one must find a way across the floor and the canopy. Which is an apt name for what exactly it is that I have come to be most impressed by.

See, deadlifting double bodyweight is cool. Doing a Turkish get-up with a half-bodyweight kettlebell is badass. But I think it’s better to be able to fall, roll and crawl across the floor. I think it’s better to be able to leap, balance, climb and hang. I doff my hat to powerlifters and Olympic lifters, but I give my heart to dancers and martial artists.

Yet, I think it’s more than that. It’s not so much what these exquisite movers actually do, more what they could do. I think that, fundamentally, what impresses me most is someone who can quickly attain competence in any physical discipline, from the gross to the fine, from the simple to the complex. A person able to do that has mastery of his physiology, and as a consequence probably possesses a distinct psychological sensitivity too.

I wonder what will impress me when I’m thirty?