Occam’s Razor for better results
I once worked with a client (let’s call him Pete) who suffered from hip pain when squatting. Pete was tight; really tight. He had all the classic symptoms of a demanding but sedentary career: no hip flexion, no thoracic extension, neck pain, back pain etc.
I soon realised that when Pete bent over with straight legs, he could barely reach past his knees and even that was mostly down to rounding his back. Whatever else was going on, Pete had some very, very tight hamstrings. One of my rules of thumb is this: you have be able to touch your toes. It’s simply but effective. If you can’t touch your toes, sit in a forward fold every day for 5 minutes until you can.
I prescribed Pete the same remedy, of course. Then, a few days later I got a text message with a link to a video. Pete had done some reading. He had discovered that hamstrings are not the real problem. Hip flexors are. What’s more he was becoming convinced that static stretching was not the proper way to increase range of motion. Active isometric and dynamic mobility drills were the answer. He asked for my thoughts.
Who’s answer was better? First of all, I don’t know for sure. But I suggest when you are faced with this kind of choice that you employ the principle of Occam’s Razor. In practical terms that means choose the simplest solution that relies on the fewest assumptions. This is often a guiding principle for theoretical physicists and mathematicians and it should be a guiding principle for you too in your quest for fitness. The simplest solution, the simplest theory is most likely to be correct. If you can’t touch your toes, you have tight hamstrings. And if you have tight hamstrings, you should stretch them.
The reason I bring this up is because there is a powerful temptation to stray away from the simplest solutions. The simplest solutions are likely those that implicate us the most. They suggest our own negligence, they compel us to hard work, they present a long path. The more arcane approaches promise magical, rapid progress. At City Road, we often deal with well-educated, successful professionals who are used to thinking their way out of corners with remarkable ability. But you cannot escape basic truths with mental athletics.
“Here: just take this voodoo floss band and wrap it here; apply this band there; roll on this lacrosse ball just so and you shall be cured!”
“Hey, it’s not that you eat too much and move too little. If you really want to get lean, just try his turmeric, matcha latte and you’ll be thin in no time!”
“Wanna get strong? Never mind those squats, they’ll just hurt your knees. Try these lateral, rotational lunges on a Bosu ball. That will make you an athlete double time!”
Look, there’s nothing wrong with bands or flossing or lacrosse balls or turmeric. These things can all contribute to health and fitness in significant ways. But pick the low-hanging fruit first. Don’t ask me what my top three supplements are unless you already have my number one supplement in your stack: a whole-food based, balanced diet.
How can you apply Occam’s Razor in practice? It’s pretty easy. When you are working out how to progress towards your goals, select the most obvious route. The right approach will also often be the hardest. It will imply a longer journey, more work. It will force you to admit to yourself that you have not been diligent in the past. To be clear: I’m not saying that training harder is always better. There are plenty of people who train themselves into oblivion to the detriment of their progress. But realise that these people are also misapplying Occam’s Razor. They will often ask you how to recover better and ignore the obvious answer that they should rest more. For these people resting is the hard route because for one reason or another they have a compulsion for suffering in the gym. Your solution will often be difficult for you to apply; it may not be difficult for another person to do the same thing.
So next time you are composing a complex strategy in your mind, remember that what you’re really doing is avoiding the simple but uncomfortable truth right in front of you and looking for a way to circumscribe reality. When it comes to fitness, Occam’s Razor is your guiding light. If you’re tight, stretch – a lot. If you’re weak, marry yourself to the barbell. If you’re bad at gymnastics, do more gymnastics. If you’re overweight, start eating better and training more. If you can’t touch your toes, get yourself in a forward fold and bloody well stay there until you can!