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  • Nathanael Littauer, CSCS

Chasing Understanding

"When you're memorizing, it's an indicator that you don't understand." -Naval Ravikant (The JRE #1309)


This quote has stood out to me since I heard it several months ago. It came in an interview with angel investor Naval Ravikant, who was explaining how renowned physicist Richard Feynman would start with basic numbers written down and showing how they ended up at calculus (or something similar).

It stuck out to me, as I have started working with more growing coaches and personal trainers on how to implement training, and one of the main things I've come to stress is the importance of having a solid foundation of knowledge of the body. You do not have to be an expert in something. You do not have to know all things, but you need to have a foundational knowledge of the human body to make an impact.


The best way I can describe this, is how I first learned it from a talk given by Vernon Griffith on how to "think outside the box." When he talked, he discussed how we cannot think outside the box until we know what's in it. We often try these fancy rep schemes or gimmicky exercises, yet they fail to produce the results because they're built on flash and not on the tools we have "in the box."


So what does it mean to chase understanding?


When we try to chase understanding, we are trying to avoid the habit of regurgitation. Everyone has seen the same set and rep schemes for different goals. Want to build strength? Do 3-5 sets of 1-5 reps. Want to build muscle mass? Do 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps. Anyone can memorize that. But having a solid foundation of the body that is performing the prescription is crucial to deciding why that prescription is correct in the first place.


To chase understanding, we have to chase baseline knowledge to the greatest extent possible. It does not mean you have to be an expert in any one thing, but to have enough knowledge to be dangerous. I like to think of it like circling a fire. Each point around the fire is a different aspect of knowledge. The fire itself is absolute specificity, and so the goal is to get as close to the fire without getting burned by specialization.


It's not that specialization is a bad thing, but rather that we want to get as close to all sides of the fire. We want to know enough to be dangerous in multiple facets of training knowledge, without getting so deep into a single topic and starting to see every problem through that one lens.


In order to truly maximize our training and our life, we have to avoid the act of memorizing, and start to seek the understanding of how exercise works and why we need it. We need to know why we pick certain sets and reps. We need to understand adaptation and stagnation. We need to understand what is going on in the body in order to make sound decisions in the gym.


In order to truly make progress, we have to skip the memory cards and start understanding what is truly going on.

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