Why Training by Instinct Will Never Make Sense
I just posted my article about reactive training, sometimes called training by feel. Related to that notion, and perhaps inherent in it, is the idea that you can and should train by instinct. Also related is the idea that you should eat by instinct. What does it mean to use your instincts in the gym? How can this help you lift a heavier weight or build muscle? Do some people have access to some kind of innate knowledge or exercise behavior that you are somehow lacking?
The answers are all in the negative. When someone tells you to use your instincts, they are telling you nothing. Instinct has nothing to do with exercise behavior. The entire idea of using physical activity improve our health and increase our fitness is entirely out of the realm of instinct.
Increasing your physical strength through the repeated lifting of heavy objects is not done by instinct. It sounds quite “woke” to say it does but the idea of invoking instinct in the gym is a vague and useless concept. Although some people are more confident in the gym than you may be to call on experience and a sort of informed intuition to figure out what their body needs, this is not instinctual. It is simply the result of having done it longer and having more experience to call on. There is even a term for this. It is called expert intuition. I will publish another article soon about how experienced strength coaches and trainers, even highly educated ones, rely often on this expert intuition.
It is actually quite ridiculous that those who wish to sound scientific in the domain of fitness and health speak in such unscientific terms. No, I do not mean that the term instinct is not scientific, I simply mean that using it to describe exercise behaviors is unscientific.
What is Instinct?
You see, instinct is not something you control. It is not something you call on. Instinct instead is an inherited behavior. This behavior is evoked by a particular environmental stimuli and it is invariable. As soon as you stop to think about your choices, you’ve side-stepped any instinctual reaction.
Have you ever seen a roach scurry away from the light? This is instinct. A roach displays negative phototaxis (there are some species who do not). This means they are inexorably repulsed by light and they move away from it. Sure, once in a while a phototaxic roach will just freeze or ignore a sudden light, but this doesn’t mean the roach is reasoning out its options and deciding that it’s in his best interest not to run away. He can’t decide this any more than a moth can decide not to fly toward a light. A moth is a positively phototaxic insect: inexorably drawn to a source of light.
Physical Fitness and Strength Training are Cultural Pursuits
Now that you understand more about what an instinct is and is not, can you think of any situation in the gym that would invoke an instinctual response? Are there any stimuli, in terms of fitness pursuits, that stimulate we humans to perform a certain invariant behavior? Even in emergencies, we humans are less controlled by instinct than other animals, although we could never completely divorce ourselves from it.
The pursuit of physical fitness, as important as it is, is a cultural pursuit, not a biological one. It requires at least a modicum of knowledge and a reasoned plan of action. You were not born with a fitness instinct. You cannot train by instinct. To do so would be meaningless. Lifting up heavy objects and putting them down, again and again, is not an instinctual behavior and there is no stimulus that would automatically cause a human being to engage in this behavior. It is a choice and a contrivance. We invented strength training, and like any human invention, it requires knowledge to use.