Majoring in the Minors

By Deane Barker

When I was getting my CrossFit Level 1 certification, we had a lecture on nutrition. The instructor, a woman named Nicole, was discussing the major macro nutrients – proteins, carbs, and fats – and how to make sure you get the right amount of each.

A guy in the back raised his hand. “What about Vitamin B12?,” he said. “How do we make sure we get enough of that?”

What Nicole said next has resonated with me ever since. She let out a sigh, and said, “Listen, don’t major in the minors…”

I think this point is true of how we approach diet and fitness in general.

Nicole was saying that there are large, basic things you need to do before you start worrying about smaller, more intricate things. The biggest nutritional problem for the average person is not a vitamin B12 deficiency. The Western Pattern Diet is so out of whack in terms of portion size and carb consumption that obsessing over your vitamin levels is a little silly by comparison.

You consumed 6,000 calories today? Congratulations, you got a lot of vitamin B12. You also got Type 2 Diabetes.

The underlying problem here is that majoring in the minors is really a subtle form of procrastination. When it comes to fitness and diet we all know what we need to do. We need to eat less, eat better, and exercise more. This basic formula hasn’t changed in thousands of years.

But we don’t want to do this. The food industry has got us hooked on sugar and it’s become really easy to sit on the couch and watch a Friends marathon on Netflix (remember when you had to wait for a TV show to come on?). So we willingly confuse the issue with ultimately pointless questions about specifics and subtleties, when the basic problem is staring us right in the face.

While I realize some people have legitimate health issues that complicate things, let’s face facts – the average person doesn’t have questions. Instead, they have excuses masquerading as questions.

Mainstream health clubs are built around exploiting our tendency to major in the minors. In my two years in CrossFit, I’ve become increasingly amused by modern exercise equipment. I just spent a weekend in Chicago, and the Globo Gym attached to the hotel was packed with some of the most arcane machinery I’ve ever seen. There is now a machine to isolate almost every muscle in the human body, apparently.

(I’ve often thought if someone from the Middle Ages was transported forward in time and walked into a health club, he’d think he was in a dungeon. People are strapped into scary-looking machines, sweating, grunting, and in obvious physical pain. Clearly, they’re being tortured for crimes against the Throne.)

I’ll freely admit that I was so guilty of this as a younger man. In my 20s, I was a body-building gym rat. I used to say things like, “Dude, if you do a inverted reverse cable crossover at just the right angle, it totally blasts your inner pectorals.” The truth was that I couldn’t find my “inner pectoral” with a map. I half-suspect it’s sitting around with a magic unicorn somewhere in a dark corner of my imagination.

Anyway, I wandered around Globo for 10 minutes looking for two things: (1) a squat rack with a decent number of plates, and (2) a straight pull-up bar. I managed to find the former, but the latter was completely missing (apparently all pull-up bars are cambered now – bent down at the ends; when did this become an exclusive thing?).

However, I did manage to find something called “The Power Plate.” The company that makes this contraption calls itself “the global leader in whole body vibration therapy” (pretty sure that’s not a crowded market). You stand on this machine, turn it on, and it vibrates…or something? According to their website, it harnesses “the body’s natural response to destabilization,” whatever that is. I wasn’t quite sure and you needed to take a class in order to use it.

(I don’t know about you, but I hear this all the time: “Hey, can you strap yourself into that Power Plate machine and help me move these boxes?”)

Now, I’m not trying to pick on the Power Plate, but it’s a handy proxy for the larger problem: the entire paradigm of today’s fitness industry is an example of majoring in the minors. An acre of machines says to the world, “Hey, this is complicated and tricky. You need all this stuff to do it right.”

No, you don’t.

I maintain that if you did these five exercises – and nothing else – you’d pretty much cover everything you need:

  1. Squat
  2. Push-Up
  3. Pull-Up
  4. Sit-Up
  5. Burpee

And that’s it. Honestly, the first four are enough. I threw in burpees just for cardio. (And because we all hate them. Suck it up.)

These exercises have been around for, well, ever. There’s nothing intricate here. The squat, in particular, is the very picture of purity. There’s nothing complex about a squat – other than knowing good, solid form, there’s not a lot of technique to it. A squat is a raw staredown between you and gravity. It’s beautiful that way, but some people are almost disappointed.

“That’s it? You just…squat?” they’ll say.

Yes. First you stop whining, and then you squat.

The way fitness is viewed these days, it’s almost a liability to say you need virtually no equipment to do these things. After all, without fancy equipment, how can we be doing anything productive?! Sure, you need bar for the pull-ups, and a barbell for the squats is handy, though a bunch of air squats will be enough for many people. If it’s not, pick up a heavy rock or a random toddler.

Regardless, humans will remain in a never-ending search for the easy way out, or for some complication or angle to take our mind off what we know we need to do. We thrive on novelty, we’re quick to seize on and magnify excuses, and we’re convinced there’s some secret we’re missing that will unlock The Miracle of Fitness™. Since it’s so hard, there clearly must be a magic diet or fitness regimen that will make it easy.

There’s not. It takes effort. The major pillars of fitness haven’t changed: eat right and sweat a lot. Does this suck? In the short-term, yes. In the long-term, it’s freaking awesome.

Getting and staying in shape is the same as it was a thousand years ago. CrossFit, Zone, and Paleo are just throwbacks and amplifications of the same things humans have been doing since we started walking upright. I get seriously defensive when people call these things “fads.” No, how we’ve been eating and exercising for the last 30 years is the fad! Fitness and diet didn’t change. We did.

So, instead of obsessing over the supposed intricacies of it all, just get under the damn bar and squat. Don’t stop until you get tired and sweaty. Then do that again tomorrow.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

It’s not complicated. It never was.