What Doesn’t Kill Us

Makes us stronger, or so the saying goes.  This is something that has been on my mind for the last couple of months in regards to our fitness and training.  Exercise is a good stressor, but can we get too much of a good thing?  Let me describe some of my thoughts and ask a few questions.  Then I’ll share with you what I’m learning from my search and some interesting thoughts from someone much smarter than I am.


Stressors provide benefits.  But mechanically entropy causes the gradual decay of systems.  We are aware that stressing our muscles forces them to adapt and be more prepared for such stress next time they are called upon.  How much stress can they take over a lifetime?  Certainly there must be a limit.

What I’m getting at is in order for our systems to benefit from exercise (stress on the system) there must be an upper limit to how much exercise is enough.  Cross the upper limit, and the system does not respond positively.

But What About

Professional Crossfit athletes?  The volume of exercise they perform is incredibly high, and they seem to be in great shape (at least on the surface)!  What about people like Rich Roll, who do crazy things like 5 Ironman distance triathlons in 5 days (known as the EPIC5 Challenge)?  This guy Rich only seems to get in better shape as he ages.

There are people out there like these, and it seems that the more they exercise (more stress they apply) the stronger they get.  Virtually re-defining the limit every year.

Consider then that these types of people are rare.  And even that their rareness is why we know about them at all.  Rarity is valuable to humans, and if everyone were a Rich Roll, no one would care.  So lets exclude the extreme right tail of the “average” human from our discussion.


In Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, Nassim Taleb (NNT) distinguishes between three systems (great read by the way, highly recommend).

  1. Fragile Systems
    These fail under stress.  Think of the wrapping you used for the Christmas presents you gave out.  Under static conditions the wrapping was fine, serving its purpose and disguising your gifts.  Christmas morning, the bestowed upon happily tore that wrapping to shreds.  Stress broke the system – Fragility.  The problem is that fragile systems are sneaky.  They seem fine, until they aren’t.  And stressors aren’t always predictable (like Christmas morning), so unexpected stressors can really mess fragile systems up.
  2. Robust System
    These aren’t harmed by stress, but they don’t benefit from it either.  They remain unchanged, neither breaking or strengthening.  Think of the boxes we jump on at the gym.  The stress of us landing on them doesn’t break them (at least not noticeably), but they don’t get any stronger either.
  3. Antifragile Systems
    Mmmmm, the most interesting.  These systems love volatility.  They benefit from stress, getting stronger because of it.  Where do we see these systems?  Well, I’m hard pressed to think of an example of a man made object that is antifragile, but nature has it figured out.

Think of the human system.  We benefit from volatility.  Arguably, things go bad (disease and sickness occur) when there is a lack of volatility, i.e., too much food, too constant a temperature, lots of sedentary-ness (word?).  Systems that are antifragile don’t do well without stress.  And NNT argues that the more random the stress, the better.  Counterintuitive?  A little.  We tend to think that the less volatility in our lives, the better off we are.  Remember though that we don’t want to be like the Christmas present, fine in the absence of stress in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and then destroyed on Christmas morning, especially if we’re like the wrapping and don’t know Christmas morning is coming.

On the other hand, chronic stress isn’t good either.  Chronic anything starts to lack volatility as well.  The idea is that keeping it random and varied in our lives is best.

The Upper Limit

So back to exercise and training.  Where is the upper limit?  It depends on the individual.  Are you a rareity (and be careful in assuming you are)?  Likely, because you are a natural system at it’s finest, the upper limit is higher than you think or imagine.  But to get there you might consider embracing randomness.  Don’t assume that to reach your potential of health the only way to get there is more and more often.  Perhaps it is less and more random…something to think on at the least, and experiment with to determine for yourself.

Stet’s Strategy

What’s Chris trying to prove to his shoulders?  Last Friday was a random spike in the amount of work my shoulders have done recently, and my body certainly responded to the shock!  Here again we are getting shoulder work.

Part A.
For the arms only row, keep the knees soft, not locked and pretend your hips are a hinge, with your trunk acting as a lever arm.  With a flat back, hinge back and forth to get a little extra pull on the rower.  These are HARD, and you should notice that.
For the strict press, NO SAGGY BACK.  Pull the ribs down to the hips and lock the abdominals tight.  You’ll want to use your legs and push press…..fight that urge and focus your mind on your shoulders.  If your back starts to arch, ditch some weight.  Protect the spine, and you’ll be fine 🙂

Part B.
Wall Ball – breath is the most important thing.  I breath out as I catch the ball (the impact makes me want to anyway so I don’t fight that), and I inhale when I throw.  Control your breath as long as you can and wall balls will feel better.  Don’t skimp on the squats either (unless you have a knee issue).  Get that a** down below the knees on the squat.
KB Swings – Check out Pat Flynn if you want to learn a thing or two about our favorite Russian torture tool.  He’s the man.  I like these vids of his for KB Swing technique.

As always, challenge yourself.  Try the next heaviest kettlebell, put 5 more pounds on your bar, and don’t be scared of the med ball.  Best of luck!

The Oboard Says…

A. EMOTM 16:
Odd – arms only row
Even – 8 strict press

B. AMRAP 10 minutes:
30 seconds of wall ball (20/14)
30 seconds of kb swings (70/53, USSR)

Posted by: Stets