The Importance of Basics

Calisthenics, Stabilizers, and Simplicity

Hey friends,

Quick plug before we dive in. I published my course ‘The Principles of Productivity’ on Listenable here. Feel free to check it out if you’d like. Onward…

This week, I want to talk about why it’s super important to revisit the basics at least thrice before we ‘get it right’. In a chat with my friend, we talked about why our minds love complexity, not simplicity. A complex financial model or a long math formula is attractive to our minds — We feel as if we are intellectually growing and it’s an amazing feeling, really.

I think the problem comes when we only focus on complexity, not simplicity. Downplaying the importance of simplicity is a mistake, one that I realized this week, while exercising.

I have been OCD about my posture when lifting weights to avoid long-term injury and build real strength, as Taleb says. So, this week, when my trainer told me about how weak my core and stabilizer muscles were, I was pleasantly surprised. If you know about core and stabilizer muscles, skip the next 2 paragraphs.

Your core is the center of gravity, where all movement begins. For any activity — weight-lifting or otherwise — your core needs to be engaged and active. Mine wasn’t, and I had been lifting weights for 3 years.

Stabilizer muscles stabilize one joint, so the desired movement can be performed in another joint. These muscles are what allow your muscles primary muscles to do their job. Mine did not.

The result: My trainer corrected my posture, helped me engage my core and stabilizers to lift weights, and while I was deadlifting 200 pounds a few months ago, I was barely able to deadlift an empty rod this time. I was able to do 50 - 100 pushups, but I was barely able to do 3 this time.

This happened all because I had only engaged my phasic muscles, never my stabilizers. This led to an inefficient form of exercising where some muscle groups would activate when they weren’t supposed to…

This got me thinking about how I had been doing it wrong, for all these years, and that no one ever corrected me. I had never engaged either my stabilizers or my core, and most importantly, was en route for long-term injury.

Coming back to the point — Basics matter. Now, I am engaged in doing ridiculously simple, boring, and “dumb” exercises, but because I am engaging the right muscles, it’s still super hard for me. These are the basics which I had always missed out on, because the glory of lifting 200 pounds is far more validating than the embarrassment of not being able to lift anything.

I have a little theory that, when we lift weights, we also lift our egos.

I remember my friend from Berkeley, who even wrote a thesis on how “colonialism exists in the gym,” meaning how we are inherently wired to play status games, forgoing the right way to do things, to simply do them, one way or another.

All these years, I had been doing it wrong, because playing status games and competing in them is a finite, empty pursuit, that benefits no one.

This experience taught me how the mind tends to reject simplicity (ie the stabilizer muscles), embraces complexity (ie wanting to deadlift 200 lbs), and seeks validation (either from the ego or others.) Due to this, we seek rapid progress at the expense of making right progress, which, sooner or later, leads us to doom (or in the fitness analogy, injury).

Basics matter, and chances are the way you did things all this while — even though you may be getting them right — was probably wrong. I put on muscle without engaging my core, but in hindsight, that was probably the biggest mistake I could have made… Not only was I functionally inefficient, I lacked real strength.

Now, however, despite not being able to lift even 1% of my maximum capacity, I am confident of developing real strength, becoming functionally efficient, and making right, rapid progress.

This is why basics matter, not just in fitness, but in life as well.

Until next time,


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In this episode, I pose a series of deep yet simple questions on how to think effectively, efficiently, and in a structured manner... how to think about problems... what frameworks to use to evaluate problems that matter and do 'great work'... and other such questions. Tune in to listen to this episode of audio diaries on Spotify, Google, Apple, or the website.

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