Over the past thirty years or so, we've witnessed the rise of the fitness industry. This consists mainly of an approach to physical fitness that is concerned with simplicity and a lack of complication. People don't want to be told that learning proper technique takes time, nor are they interested in the intricacies of program design. I'm always amazed at how most people assume that weight training is a low skill activity. On a regular basis, I meet people with absolutely no training experience who assume that I can give them a “program” in about fifteen minutes. Typically, these people are professionals of some sort, and I want to ask them, “If I show up at your office, can you give me a quick overview and let me start doing your job?”

These assumptions regarding weight training as a low skill activity have arisen at the same time that gyms have spent more and more money on equipment. Is it any coincidence that a leg press is seen as a necessity for any mainstream gym while a coach who can teach proper squatting technique isn't?

This situation is an example of what the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in his book After Virtue observed as the marginalization of “practices” in modern society. MacIntyre says, “By a ‘practice,’ I am going to mean any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically extended.”

For our purposes, what's important is first the recognition that, according to this definition, weightlifting, powerlifting, and CrossFit are examples of practices while “working out” isn't. The reason “practices” are significant is that they provide the social structures within which people can come to find goals and purposes that are valuable for their own sake. These activities provide one with an identity. We don't have any problem pointing to a powerlifter or a weightlifter, but anyone who identifies himself as a casual gym member and does random body part splits and some cardio would just seem odd. This is because “working out” lacks the goal directness of the above named sports.

The activities of the casual gym member are instrumental. They aren't done for their own sake but instead are necessary evils. MacIntyre explains what he means when he says practices are valuable for their own sake by telling a story about teaching a child how to play chess. He says that at first you might try to get a child to play chess by offering him candy for winning. But, if five years later the same person is still playing in order to win candy, we would think that he had failed to understand the point of chess—not candy but complex strategic decision making and the opportunity to exercise this. That is what makes chess worthwhile.

The child in this parable is a little like the typical person who “works out.” He is still trying to get candy and can't understand how weight training provides the opportunity to exercise simultaneously one’s cognitive, emotional, and physical capabilities. Why is this important, particularly at this time?

Currently, the healthcare system in the United States is facing a crisis. Without listing statistics, costs have risen to astronomical levels mostly as a result of preventable diseases. The rising costs of healthcare are leading to social unrest and a lack of cohesion among citizens. This has led to rising crime rates, political gridlock, and reactionary policies that end up alienating large portions of the population. The mainstream fitness industry hasn't succeeded in preventing the current healthcare crisis and has arguably contributed to it. By leading people to believe that “working out” is a simple task that any idiot can do, people have grown unwilling to invest either time or money in learning the proper skills that would enable them to maintain their physical fitness and avoid disease.

Weightlifting coaches, powerlifting gym owners, and trainers skilled and experienced in these activities need to offer people the opportunity to learn to appreciate the different forms of weight training the way the character in the fictional parable tried to teach the child to play chess. Trainers have been taught to instrumentalize their services “to sell results.” There is a place for this—results are important—but in the future, success will be achieved by showing people how to transform their lifestyle.

CrossFit has been most successful at this recently. Membership is an offer of a way of life to potential clients. In the future, pressured by insurance companies to lose weight and improve various risk factors (blood glucose levels, triglycerides), people will realize that health requires a more substantial investment of time and money. Success will be had by showing people that training rather than ‘working out’ offers a new identity. Successful trainers will show people that the services a coach provides make evident new goals and values. This will make it possible for people to become healthy doing things they enjoy. This is exactly what Gayle Hatch, the former U.S. Olympic Weightlifting coach, did for my grandfather.

In his late sixties, my grandfather joined a health club after doctors told him he would likely die if he didn't begin exercising. After a short time working on Nautilus machines, Coach Hatch approached him and said something like, “Why don’t you come do some real weightlifting with me?” This led to over twenty years of weightlifting competitions all over the world. Today at ninety-seven, he is still healthy and active. Would he be alive today had he never learned the clean and jerk?